Everyone is alone in the world, separate from all else, at all times, and never truly capable of saying with certainty that things could be otherwise. This is both a fundamental existential problem and a flawed way of looking at human relationships. It is true: each individual is separated from the world by his or her perceptions, but: there is a reason why human beings cooperate, why we integrate ourselves into larger social fabrics, why we maintain relationships from birth to death, or for as long as possible.
We are “social beings” is a common way of saying it. The human being is the “grammatical ape”, a talkative species that uses codified sounds to create and transmit meaning and to build a community of individuals, ideas and voices, in which the individual can benefit from having connections as well. The “human” is an idea, not a fact, another way of looking at things, and so we should not even go as far as to say that the individual is apart from everything else, as we cannot define totally what it is that makes us a group in which that is true, aside from DNA and appearances.
These are all cultural refrains that repeat themselves in sometimes subtle, sometimes unsubtle ways. But the key to this examination is the problem of solitude, isolation, abandonment: what barriers are there to reaching a level of connection and reliability in one’s relationships, or at least in most important one(s), that allows one to feel that not everyone is alone, but there are bonds, safe spaces, enduring affections, and constructive complexity in human relationships?
The first barrier is the idea itself: everyone is alone… this seems true, and it is true that everyone, probably by the nature of human awareness and perception, must experience this, sometimes. But what does that really mean? The 9th century Chinese zen master, Huang Po has been translated as having said to a student of the zen way:
Once you stop arousing concepts and thinking in terms of existence and non-existence, long and short, other and self, active and passive, and suchlike, you will find that your Mind is intrinsically the Buddha, that the Buddha is intrinsically Mind, and that Mind resembles a void.
Huang Po’s words relate to the idea of “Buddha” as absolute enlightenment, and Mind as the realm in which one moves either closer to or further away from that enlightenment. “Void” is not a negation, it is not a vacuum, in zen thought, but means “beyond tangible perception”. It means that the truth as such can be conceptualized for the convenience of human thought, but that conceptualizations are not the truth, as such.
So, are we alone? How do we know? Does our perception, or our mind, hold this evidence? And if so, is it reliable? To each of these points, it is possible to respond by saying “possibly”. There are moments in which we are without substantive human contact, in a moment, or in a specific activity, and we must find a way to share our truth with others, if we desire to. We are alone. But this is not a permanent state of being, and it is not, ultimately, the truth of things.
Our perception notes in such cases that we are out of touch, we are without immediate open connections, we are alone, but this is not the only truth. We are also in touch, we are also, in most cases, close to part of our own story which is bound up with human connections, and which we cannot keep from view, not entirely. We are known, to some degree, and that knowledge, in the experience of those we have come in contact with, is part of who we are. We cannot always access it, and the feeling of being unable to influence how that information is received, stored or called up, by the other, can be a kind of existential solitude that troubles the soul, deeply.
But it is not necessarily that way, because the experience that in such a case manifests itself as frustration is shared with other people, though each person lives it in their own way, often away from the perception of others. It is this distance between the perception in its moment and the perception as experienced, the one relating closely to a complex array of interpersonal circumstances, and the other held back from that closeness of contact by the vastness of what is not certain about that intermediate terrain between one and the other. So, we must first ask ourselves what is the truth of an experience of absolute perception.
Camus writes that:
La première démarche de l’esprit est de distinguer ce qui est vrai de ce qui est faux. Pourtant dès que la pensée réfléchit sur elle même, ce qu’elle découvre d’abord, c’est une contradiction. Inutile de s’efforcer ici d’être convaincant.
So perception of the self is by its own nature “unconvincing”. It is rooted in the inherently unconvincing nature of fact-perception itself: to perceive is to cross a distance, and so to become aware of separation, but to perceive humanity, whether in oneself or in another, is a kind of closing of that distance, a transmission of an implausible inner reality in which that distance is shared, and so is an experience of proximity. A contradiction.
As we seek to impose on our perception the task of proving its distance from the world it perceives —prove its ability to discern not only true from false, but also self from surroundings—, we fall into a trap of far-reaching consequences: any such judgment is inherently incomplete. Because the mind assembles all perceived reality always within reach of its own perceptive capacity, it can only truly perceive itself, not the real place of what lies beyond it. So yes, in this way, we are always detached from what we seek to know, and it is always possible to perceive that perceptual distance as a void, unyielding and uncrossable, but in this, we are joined by all perceptual beings.
The sensation of a deep existential aloneness is not so much a study of the facts as it is an awareness of the nature of human consciousness not meeting our most overwhelming desires. It is important to get a sense of the limits of perception and immediate communication, so that we do not let the weight of untenable desires push our vision of the possibility of making contact with others over the line toward despair. That despair is another lie that emerges easily from adherence to desires with a distorted objective and from a misperception of perception itself.
In fact, there is room for a near total conversion of the traditional role assigned to perception: it is commonly professed that perception, via the senses and the mind, is intended to help us acquire knowledge of the world outside, but we could argue that percpetion is a mechanism for building the world of the self, within us. Not particularly ideal for mapping the full scope of the larger universe, our perception corresponds to our preferences about the inner world in which we make sense of the outer world.
The senses do give us the ability to assess our environment, to catch danger in our consciousness before it is too close, to navigate toward sustenance and away from mortal threats, but perception as a whole functions more as part of a project of making and maintaining a coherent, referential inner world, so the distance we perceive with concern in times of isolation is actually a vital element in the healthy functioning of an individual consciousness.
Everyone is alone, sometimes, when these difficult realities or our perceptual selfhood become all-too-evident, and it is possible to doubt what, if any, connection we have made with external entities —people, facts and resources—, each a stimulus, a reference and a ghost carrying meanings we can only suspect. But that aloneness is only a sometime interference in our more constant experience of being bound to those elements that provoke and inform our perception.
It is that complex intertwining of sameness and difference, of embrace and distance, of communication and isolation, that pushes us to defy the need for times of solitude, but which causes us to long for it when excess imposition from the exterior impedes our ability to discern what is true from what is not or what is our own from what is fed into our consciousness. Like dreaming, remembering or imagining, the experience of aloneness is a part of our lifelong project of crafting a personal consciousness of the world, a necessary element of the process, a gift as much as a burden.