There is a lot written about this subject, so it seems quite cheeky to imagine that I can add much. However, it is on my mind today because I have been doing some research for the layout of Beneath (the book about the individual unconscious) and looking through photographs and rereading excerpts from books that have helped me. I came across some writing on the essential aloneness of being human in a book by James Hollis called Swamplands of the Soul. Hollis puts it as follows: “The two greatest fantasies we are obliged to relinquish in the second half of life are that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition, and that out there somewhere is some “magical Other” that will rescue us from existential isolation”. If we believe Hollis and we agree with him that that we do indeed suffer from existential isolation, then of course we are going to try anything that momentarily takes us away from what is at best uncomfortable and lonely and at worst, unbearable.
And so, we will reach for any activity, thing or person that makes us feel better for a while (even though we feel worse afterwards) – any resource that provides the illusion that we are not essentially alone, and that we have some control over our existential state. We drink, we smoke, we work longer than necessary, we indulge in a surfeit of social networking or surfing the internet, we eat more than we need for healthy living, we watch TV when there are other more important things to do, we buy things we do not need, we gamble, we compulsively seek romantic or sexual partners, we exercise obsessively, we adopt dogmas and try to convince others of our “rightness”, we take prescription and non-prescription drugs, we plan, we rush and we fill our minds with worry and magical thinking. And it is hard to stop ourselves. Of course, these distractions also seem to help with the fact that in addition to our essential aloneness, we suffer a range of other assaults on our well-being – we suffer losses large and small, we struggle practically and financially, we come up against the needs of others that differ from our needs and so we have conflict, and our daily living sometimes drains us of the energy required to manage these challenges.
However, there are times where living feels ok or even really good, even without the distractions. Hollis is somewhat more optimistic a page later in his book when he says that “Nature has not brought us here unequipped for the journey”. We have the potential for a set of inner resources that can contain us while we suffer. The difficulty is that we need caregivers who can help us to develop those inner resources so that when we face our aloneness, we can feel supported from within. Scott Peck, in his well known book The Road Less Travelled, made a comment that struck me as important when I reread it some months ago. He said that one of the most important things parents can do for their children is to help them learn how to suffer. In other words, the parent must help the child to learn to bear the discomfort of life challenges, without trying to remove those challenges or protect the child from the life process. Of course, there are limits to what is appropriate at different ages, and parents cannot control everything that happens to their children, and sometimes life throws unbearable suffering at someone who is not equipped to manage it.
Fortunately, learning how to manage suffering can happen later on in life too. I am still learning how to suffer, rather than distracting myself. I am learning that the ordinary love of friends expressed in quiet companionship helps a great deal, and that, if suffering is allowed, and supported, it passes. I am learning that witnessing the cycles of life in the natural environment around me helps. Finally, it seems that spending time developing my inner resources by closely attending to the communication from my unconscious self, as cryptic as it is sometimes, helps most of all.