I must have been nine or ten years old when I realized that my parents didn’t understand me. And, worst of all, my peers didn’t either. I was doomed to be alone and misunderstood. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that every child discovers their existential loneliness at a certain point: usually in pre-puberty. The way they learn to cope with the discovery has a lot to do with the type of adult they will become.
We are social creatures. Both in a physical and emotional sense, we’re meant to find safety and comfort in a group. We aren’t unique in this. Recent studies of family groups of African elephants, described in Carl Safina’s wonderful book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, show the close-knit character of these groups and the intense grief and confusion elephants feel when one of them is killed. In some ways, we resemble elephants, needing the solace and companionship of the tribe.
Some people, often because of the circumstances of their family lives, will start to accept the fact that they’re alone at a very early age. At this time, they may harden their hearts to any longing to belong. They need to, to survive.
By the time we reach adolescence, belonging to the family does not offer the solace it used to. We search for peer groups to belong to. If we find them, we feel safe and sheltered. At least for a while. As we grow towards adulthood, we often find a partner and settle down into a life destined to build a home and raise a family of our own. Sometimes, this is enough. But not always. We humans are, as Carl Jung stated, driven to become distinct individuals, fulfilling an unwritten destiny to the best of our abilities, leaving our mark in the world.
The call to become an individual – therefore embracing our existential aloneness – will repeat itself over and over again in our lives. If we hear it at a very young age, it’s usually too terrifying a call to understand. Some adults will find it threatening as well and turn their backs on it. Others will heed the call and head out into the unknown.
I describe these moments in my own life in my autobiography, Passage of the Stork. Those of us who end up out on this limb find themselves leaving their familiar, sheltered way of life and facing the ultimate aloneness of their existence.
And here’s the kicker: even when you are in a relationship, among a circle of friends, leading a sheltered life: the feeling of being alone is never very far away.
So we try to ignore it, to tell ourselves we’re silly, or there’s something wrong with us. The temptation is great to find ways of not feeling it. Many addictive pursuits – from alcohol to smartphones – are flights from feeling the pang of loneliness.
The challenge is to find a balance: holding those whom we love close and giving ourselves enough freedom and space to grow and be alone. We are born alone, and we will die alone. But our lives are very much about giving and receiving love.