This weekend I was talking with a friend about the experience of being alone. I had just come out of a nearly-eight hour trip to a nearby hospital emergency room because I’d been struggling to breathe. Fears of rapidly progressing pneumonia and even blood clots were eventually ruled out, thankfully; I had some unidentified viral crud and no one could properly tell me why I couldn’t breathe. I’m slowly getting better but it’s going to be a long crawl back to whatever passes for normal in my world.
Unlike a sister and a number of friends and acquaintances, I’ve never had asthma or other breathing problems. The isolating, occasionally frantic feeling that descended on me as I just lay there day after day, hour after hour making the increasingly grand effort of just, like, inhaling was unfamiliar. Rationally, I knew I was fine. The ER’s blood oxygen monitor gave optimal readings, and so did all the other gadgets. I just struggled to breathe normally; I was exhausted all the time. My body felt heavy. I couldn’t think clearly and during the worst of it I felt distractingly light-headed. I just stared at the wall a lot, disinterested in everything.
By good fortune, my friend happened to be in town and she was able to rescue me from the ER. We had some meals together and talked a lot. Well, I tried frequently to talk, but finally just shut up and let her have some space to speak. I’ve thought a lot about what my friend said about her own experiences of alone-ness. Not loneliness exactly, but the experience of being alone. Even when she talks to people, she feels alone. She feels alone in her marriage, alone in her friendships, alone in her spiritual life, alone in being taken seriously in her fears, her ambitions, her desires. And I know this isn’t anything new for her. This alone-ness is something she has struggled with for a long time, without any way to resolve it. Even articulating it in a specific manner has, I think, been difficult.
There are many things – most things, actually – about her particular experience of alone-ness that I won’t ever understand, and not just because we are quite different people in the choices we have made and in the way we have sought to be unalone. However, I got a reminder not too long ago about a lesson I was confronted by in my own path: That there is no pain we might experience that is truly unique in the human condition. That is: We are not so very special that we are going to experience something that no one has never felt before. Or perhaps: We are not alone in our pain.
Although we might be alone in living through whatever experience we currently find ourselves in, it’s helpful to remember that know that others have been here before. No matter how isolating or complicated or hard to articulate our experiences might be – and they no doubt absolutely are! – there can be some comfort (maybe) in knowing, however abstractly, that we are not truly alone (even if we wrestle with the truth-in-feeling that we are).
There can also be a measure of humility that must be grappled with when reaching for the truth that our pain is not so very unique after all. Like the adolescent who will (hopefully) eventually come to understand that their emotional torment is, in fact, shared with virtually every other person who has ever lived through that stage of life and later shrugs with a bit of chagrin, the maturing spiritual practitioner also (hopefully) gains a similar type of insight into the various aches, burns, and torsions that we undergo.
Which isn’t to say I’ve learned my lessons all that well. I still nurse a pretty stubborn grudge about some personal pain. Despite doing quite a bit of work on this count, the resentment still resists letting go and settling into the past. I still hold onto it as a *personal* pain, something that belongs to *me*, something that characterizes *me*, rather than something that I have merely experienced and that is therefore shared across space and time, and that I have no particular claim over. So simply knowing the beats of the lesson is not necessarily the same as having internalized it to the point of being able to apply it in all circumstances. I’m working on it.
I know this is something others struggle with – both because I hear others say so and because I struggle with it directly myself (and I know that I cannot be alone in these things). Personalizing pain, identifying with it, and making it a key part of one’s struggle and quest for identity is….well, I suppose if it provides some vast insight into that personal luminous space, that cave of the heart, that light before light and that prism beyond words, I guess you do you. But the problem with identifying with one’s pain and the answers to the questions that arise from it is that there will always be more of all of it. There will always be more people to hurt you; there will always be shifting answers to questions like, “why did this happen?”, “why did it happen this way?”, “why can’t I have what others have?”, and “what did I do wrong?”. Even though I do rather reject the notion of some kind of concrete essential self that can be meaningfully described with words in a manner that is consistently useful, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a shifting sense of self, I just think it’s also helpful to be discerning about what sources one uses to draw conclusions about oneself. Painful circumstances, especially those circumstances brought about by extremely shitty factors and perhaps then compounded by one’s own unhelpfully argumentative, contrary, belittling, and/or petty psychology, are probably not the most helpful sources from which to draw any meaningful conclusions about one’s self – for the short or long term. So, you know, maybe don’t. Or try not to.
Of course, all this is much easier said than done (as I mentioned above, I struggle with it myself to no small degree). Even talking about our pain to reassure ourselves and others that we’re not alone in these things is not at all easy – and isn’t necessarily the best, or correct, or necessary, solution to this basic existential loneliness experienced in (spiritual) life. It’s all very easy to say “oh let’s all go get therapy” when that’s also not necessarily the best, or correct, or easy solution to this (and some of us may not even feel it necessary, I don’t know). There was a brief time when spirit workers tried to minister to each other, and no doubt some of us probably still do, but it was a cluster fuck that no degree of Physician Heal Thyself could fully correct (so I don’t necessary think that that’s the correct solution, either).
I suppose I keep coming back to the Buddhist idea that we possess within ourselves the capacity to overcome our suffering, even as we also possess within ourselves the capacity to inflict upon ourselves extreme suffering. We are also capable of helping and hurting others along the way; there are always choices we can make, even if we might find that the menu of options is being constantly rearranged based on past actions and current perceptions.
I guess it’s pretty obvious I don’t have a clearly spelled-out solution, even if I’ve been able to discern something resembling a dim path forward for myself out of this very fundamental problem with the experience of private pain and the loneliness arising therefrom. I’m hesitant to say what it is, or what it has been, because I’m not exactly sure myself – but I’m entirely confident in your – yes, *your* – ability to work it out for yourself.
So – here’s to giving myself new future, past actions by shaping some new current perceptions I suppose. Here’s to trying to grip some pain with just a little less self-identification.
So mote it be.