We are all alone. You are alone, and so am I. Nobody else can live your life for you, or know exactly how you feel, or what is most important to you, or share precisely what goes on in your inner world. Nobody else can take that responsibility off your shoulders, take the risks for you, take the blame for you, or the outcomes of your decisions. You live in a world with others, but as an entity, a being, you are alone. As the old hymn goes:
You got to walk that lonesome valley;
You got to walk it by yourself;
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You got to walk it by yourself.
It’s almost cruel, isn’t it, stated that starkly? And human beings will do almost anything to soften, shift or deny that stark reality. Some classic favorites are drugs, alcohol, and sex. There are others, more sophisticated perhaps, that are used either unconsciously or for higher purposes: what we call “Psychological Problems” are, in large part, a clever, unconscious way for the individual to deny being all alone. Say you have parents who are unable to love, cruel, neglectful or emotionally disabled, leaving the child for all intents and purposes, all alone. What does the mind do? It comes up with a new paradigm: I am bad, I am unlovable. If I was just good enough, smart enough, nice enough, pretty enough, strong enough, they would love me. Now the perceived locus of control is in You, not the parent. True, you’ll never get ‘good enough’ to be loved, but that’s because of You, not them. Thus the fantasy, or potential, of bonding and connection is preserved in amber, “in hopes of better days,” as the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott once said so eloquently.
Religion sometimes provides another ‘higher level’ method of assuaging the pain and fear of being all alone. Jesus is with me always. Comforting, isn’t it? God is everywhere, and I am part of God. What a relief! Again, this is not to trivialize genuine spiritual beliefs, but you can see the distinct possibility that these beliefs can be used, or misused, to make our condition more bearable, whether or not Jesus is actually on the job.
Even Buddhism can be misused to mask our existential fears:
There is no self – self is just an illusion.
In this system, there is no ‘I’ in the first place, to be alone – ‘I’ am just a part of universal awareness, one with the universe, and division and separateness are just distortions of reality. Again, all spiritual systems are noble pursuits, but again, even noble pursuits can be misused. I have had therapy patients who are avid meditators come in for help and, when I tried to explain that their emotional problems were the result of a poor or distorted sense of self, tell me confidently, “Oh no – that is irrelevant, since there is no self.” Well, believe it or not, even Buddhists need a sense of self (in the ‘mundane’ psychological sense) to function well in the world!
But perhaps there is another clue in everything that I said above – a sense of belonging, a sense of being in the same boat with others. Religion provides this; spiritual traditions provide this; sex, even addictive sex, at least implies an ‘other’; even drug and alcohol addicts often derive a sense of identity in their usage. I have often thought that one of the major reasons why AA and NA work, is that they force addicts into functional emotional relationship with others: transparency and disclosure, the emotional give and take of humanity, rather than the “one-person system” of drugs and alcohol (“I don’t need anybody else in order to feel better – I’ve got my drugs to keep me warm”). Saying, right out loud, “I am an addict, and I need you,” is not just breaking the denial of the addiction itself, but just as importantly, the denial of the need for others that is implicit in the addictive lifestyle of using substances, rather than people, to ‘feel better’.
Today I remembered a passage from a book by Melody Beattie, who has written extensively on co-dependency. But this book (The Lessons of Love) is about her dealing with the loss of her son, and her daughter’s struggles with addiction. At one point, her daughter returns home from a recovery program. Her friends, who call themselves the Get Along Gang, have gathered to welcome her home. Melody is appreciative of the way the friends support each other. Her daughter explains:
We each go through different things…We know the other person doesn’t understand, because they haven’t been through exactly that same thing. But we listen, and we tell each other we don’t exactly understand. But we care. That’s what makes us a Get Along Gang. We help each other get along.
What a beautiful, and sophisticated, way of expressing what we can do about being “all alone”. There is no denial here, no distortion, no pie in the sky, no tricks, no cheating, no hidden carrying charges: just the straight skinny on the human condition and how to live with it. And I hope in my therapy practice that is what I am offering people.
As Jimmy, an ex-patient I saw as a teenager, once said to me many years later, “Thanks for giving me a safe place to face the truth.” You’re welcome, Jimmy – and thank you for the privilege of letting me be part of your facing the truth, because we are all afraid, we are all in the same boat. We are all that crazy creation – the animal that not only is subject to life and death, aloneness and loss, but has to KNOW it, too!
Yes, we are all alone. But we can be alone, together.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.