20 Jun The concept of existential aloneness. (Dyer)
In addition to realizing that you are unique in this world, you must also accept that you are always alone. Yes, alone!
No one can ever feel what you are feeling, whether you are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, or making love with one person, or by yourself in a closet. Your inevitable “existential aloneness” simply means that your human existence is unavoidably predicated on your being alone with your own unique feelings and thoughts.
Your recognition of your existential aloneness can either be very freeing or highly enslaving, depending upon what you choose to do with it. But in either case, you will not ever change it. You can, however, choose to make it a freeing experience by making it work for you, as I have encouraged many clients to do.
Consider the example of Ralph, a forty-six-year-old executive who came to me for counseling some years ago.
Ralph’s confrontation with his existential aloneness had come suddenly. He told me how he had been sitting in his living room one evening staring at his wife, who was preoccupied reading the newspaper, oblivious to the swirling vortex of thoughts in his head. All at once he had the eerie feeling that this person to whom he had been married for twenty-four years didn’t even know him, that she was like a total stranger sitting there in his living room. He realized for the very first time that this person would never, ever know the private inner workings of Ralph.
The feeling was very spooky, and Ralph didn’t know quite what to do with it, except to seek counseling. In our early sessions he felt he had to do something about it, like get a divorce or run away. But as he came to grips with this fundamental truth about what it means to be a human being, he learned to see his fundamental aloneness from a totally different perspective–a freeing perspective, if you will. Since his wife could never feel what he was feeling, he should stop expecting her to understand him and “be with him” all the time. Conversely, he realized that his wife was existentially alone too, and so he could relieve himself of the burden of always trying to be as one with her and experience what she was feeling, which led to needless guilt when he failed. Armed with this insight, he could stop his infernal, self-dooming quest for someone to feel what he was feeling, and could get on with pulling all his own strings. He could also eliminate his wasteful expectations for his wife and get off her back, too.
Before long, Ralph felt like a new man–all because he had been freed from the senseless attempt to have someone join him inside his own unique body and mind.
It is important to see how Ralph might have turned his insight of existential aloneness into disaster, as so many people do, by telling himself that he was a prisoner of his human condition, and that no one would ever understand him. He had done a lot of complaining that his wife “didn’t understand” him before coming to me for counseling, and his sudden intuition that she was in one way a “stranger” could have aggravated that behavior and made the situation seem hopeless. But as we examined existential aloneness together, Ralph recognized the futility of trying to get anyone to be with him internally, that while people can share many things, and get very close to each other, the plain truth is they can only know each other’s surfaces. Their inner beings are strictly off-limits by virtue of their very humanity.
Existential aloneness can be a source of great strength as well as a source of big trouble. Whenever you even tempted to use other people’s lives as models of how you should run your own, think of this line by Henrik Ibsen, the nineteenth-century Norwegian dramatist: “The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”
Now you can interpret this as an antisocial, selfish attitude, if that is what you wish to do–or you can look hard at what is dictated by the parameters of your own reality. The fact is that the people who have had the greatest impact on mankind, who have helped the greatest number of people, are those who have consulted their own inner feelings, rather than doing what everyone else said they should do. In this context, strength means being able to stop trying to get everyone else to feel what you are feeling, and stand up for what you believe.
To go back to my former client Ralph: He still recalls that moment in his living room as one of the most important of his life, because not only did it get him into counseling and give him the freedom to halt his lifelong, albeit futile, effort to have his wife and children feel what he was feeling, it also gave him the strength to be himself in a more powerful and positive way. He still believes that no man is entirely an island who can function as an antisocial hermit, but he now knows, by virtue of having experienced it, that internally we are islands unique unto ourselves, and that coming to grips with that idea will help all of us build bridges to others, rather than erecting barriers by being upset when we see that others are not like us.
Pulling Your Own Strings
Wayne W. Dyer