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Existential isolation is a fundamental isolation – an isolation both from creatures and from world. No matter how close each of us becomes to another, there remains a final, unbridgeable gap; each of us enters existence alone and must depart from it alone.
So speaks the american psychotherapist Irvin Yalom in his book “Existential Psychotherapy” from 1980. Irvin Yalom continues:
To the extent that one is responsible for one’s life, one is alone. Responsibility implies authorship; to be aware of one’s authorship means to foresake the belief that there is another who creates and guards one. Deep loneliness is inherent in the act of self-creation. One becomes aware of the universe’s cosmic indifference. Perhaps animals have some sense of shepherd and shelter, but humankind, cursed by self-awareness, must remain exposed to existence.”Irvin Yalom (b. 1931)
To avoid the anxiety of isolation we seek a sense of safe and familiar belonging. At the same time we hide our isolation behind worldly artifacts, each imbued with personal and collective meaning, so that we experience only a world of everydayness, of routine activities. In other words, we lull ourselves into a sense of cozy, familiar belongingness to bury and silence the primordial world of vast emptiness and isolation, only to have them speak in brief bursts during nightmares and mythic visions.
One may take a portion of the isolation into oneself and bear it courageously or, to use Heidegger’s term, ‘resolutely’. But no matter how we relate to one another no relation can dissolve isolation. Yet aloneness can be shared in such a way that love compensates for the pain of isolation.
I-Thou-relationships vs. I-It-relationships
Few people have described existential isolation more captivating and vividly than the Israeli born Austrian philosopher Martin Buber.
Martin Buber developed the concept of I-Thou-relationships vs. I-It-relationships. As Martin Buber explains, the I-It relationship is the relationship between a person and equipment, a ‘functional’ relationship between subject and object wholly lacking mutuality. The I-Thou relationship, on the other hand, is a wholly mutual relationship involving a full experiencing of the other. Not only is ‘Thou’ different from ‘It’, but the very ‘I’ is fundamentally different in the two situations. The ‘I’ in the I-Thou-relationship is ‘betweenness’ and a shaping of the ‘I’ in the context of some relationship. Conversely, when relating to ‘It’ (whether to a thing or to a person made into a thing) one holds back something of oneself: one inspects ‘it’ from many possible perspectives; one categorizes it, analyzes it, judges it, and decides upon its position in the grand scheme of thing.
Martin Buber phrases the I-Thou relationship beautifully:
A great relationship breaches the barriers of a lofty solitude, subdues its strict law, and throws a bridge from self-being to self-being across the abyss of dread of the universe.Martin Buber (1878-1965)
The basic experiental mode of the I-Thou is ‘dialogue,’ that is, turning toward another with one’s whole being with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between oneself and the other.
This does not mean it is always possible to turn toward each other with such intensity. Buber stressed that, though the I-Thou constituted an ideal toward which one should strive, it existed in only rare moments. One has to live primarily in the I-It world; to live solely in the ‘Thou’ world would result in one’s burning oneself up in the white flame of the ‘Thou.’ Life also consists of practical matters. But the more you experience the world as an I-It relation the less you will experience you make use of your potential.
According to social psychologist, psychoanalyst and philosopher, Erich Fromm, for the mature ‘productive’ person, giving is an expression of strength and abundance. In the act of giving, one expresses and enhances one’s aliveness.
When one gives, he brings something to life in the other person, and this which is brought to life reflects back to him; in truly giving, he cannot help receiving that which is given back to him. Giving makes the other person a giver also, and they both share in the joy of what they have brought to life.Erich Fromm
According to Irvin Yalom, for Fromm;
To love means to be actively concerned for the life and growth of another. One must be responsive to the needs (physical and psychic) of the other. One must respect the uniqueness of the other, to see him as he is, and to help him to grow and unfold in his own ways, for his own sake and not for the purpose of serving oneself. But one cannot fully respect the other without knowing that other deeply. True knowledge of the other, Fromm believes, is possible only when one transcends one’s self-concern and sees the person in the other’s own terms. One needs to experience empathically …: that is, one needs to enter and become familiar with the private world of the other, to live in the other’s life and sense the other’s meanings and experiences.
Two ways to avoid the terror of isolation
One may choose between two ways to avoid the terror of isolation.
Existing in the eyes of others: If the pure sense of being, of “I AM,” of being the source of things, is too frightening in its isolation, one denies self-creation and chooses to believe that one exists only insofar as one is the object of others’ consciousness.
Fusion. Irvin Yalom explains: “The human being’s “universal conflict” is that one strives to be an individual, and yet being an individual requires that one endure a frightening isolation. The most common mode of dealing with this conflict is through denial: one elaborates a delusion of fusion and proclaims in effect, ‘I am not alone, I am part of others’.” In this manner one softens one’s ego boundaries and become part of another individual or of a group that transcends the individual.
These ‘dependent’ people live for the ‘dominant other.’ They submerge their own needs; they seek to find out what the others wish and make those wishes their own. Above all, they wish to avoid offense. They choose safety and merger over individuation.Irvin Yalom
Fusion eliminates isolation in a radical fashion – by eliminating self-awareness. Blissful moments of merger are unreflective: the sense of self is lost. The wonderful thing about romantic love is that the questioning lonely ‘I’ disappears into the ‘we.’ “Love,” as Kent Bach comments, “is the answer when there is no question.” Likewise, to lose self-consciousness is often comforting. As Søren Kierkegaard said: “The more consciousness, the more intense the despair.”
One may also shed one’s isolating sense of self by fusing, not with another individual, but with a ‘thing’ – a group, a cause, a country, a project … To be like everyone else – to conform in dress, speech, customs; to have no thoughts or feelings that are different – saves one from the isolation of selfhood. Of course, the ‘I’ is lost but so is the fear of aloneness.
We can, however, familiarize ourselves with our isolation. Says Irvin Yalom:
The practice of meditation offers another avenue to isolation awareness… Individuals learn to face what they fear the most. They are asked to plunge into isolation – and, even more important, to plunge nakedly without customary shields of denial. They are asked to ‘let go’ (rather than to achieve and acquire), to empty their minds (rather than to categorize and analyze experience), and to respond to and harmonize with the world (rather than to control and subdue it). Certainly one of the explicit goals of the meditational state, one of the states one must achieve on the path to enlightenment (satori), is awareness that physical reality is in fact a veil obscuring reality, and that only by reaching deep into one’s isolation is one able to remove that veil. But recognition of the illusionary nature of reality or … awareness of one’s constitutive function, invariably plunges one into a confrontation with existential isolation, into an awareness that not only is one isolated from others but, at the most fundamental level, isolated from world as well.
With those last words of advise from Irvin Yalom we conclude this introduction to existential isolation. If this post has warmed you up for the existential tradition you can find more blog posts on death, freedom and meaninglessness here.
I also warmly encourage you to head directly to Irvin Yalom whose book “Existential Psychotherapy” from 1980 this blog post is based on. Irvin Yalom is a goldmine of inspiration and my biggest hope with this blog post is really for the reader to go straight to him. There is no substitute for his works.
The Skeleton-Man Show Death: The High Price of Living
In my new show Death: The High Price of Living I introduce the audience to the existential tradition. You can find more information about the show here that is specifically targeted educational institutions and companies, for instance, as a fun and engaging event at the yearly company art club assembly.