We are small creatures trying to be large. Or perhaps we are incomplete beings trying to be whole. Do those words sum up the human condition? How do we deal with our essential loneliness and insecurity? I’ll get to that.
Man begins incomplete, both in the womb and out. Your newborn is unable to tell the difference between himself and you. The trouble starts when he figures out that he can’t live without you. No wonder he cries.
Insecurity is in the nature of life. Indeed, if I met an entirely secure person I’d ponder how he managed to miss so much about the “simple difficulty” of living. A contradiction in terms, I know.
From the infant’s first tear begins a lifetime journey to complete himself, to escape solitary confinement. Most of us don’t want to be alone — a vulnerable and separate existence. The punishments in the Bible begin with being “cast out.” First, Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden. Then Cain was exiled for the murder of his brother. “You are on your own” is not a friendly statement. In truth, we are all on our own, in our own skin, unique in the vista we observe from the elevated wrapper we call the head.
What to do? Let’s start with what some of us do most of the time and all of us do some of the time. We attempt to incorporate other people into our lives. Intercourse achieves this physically. No wonder sex is bliss.
Next best is to embrace — get physically close, but still outside. Neither an embrace nor copulation last long. The problem of separateness resists a resolution.
Social — not physical — affiliation is a pleasing substitute. Where intimate friendships are absent, group connections take their place. Team membership has its satisfactions and avoids the “left out” experience of children’s games. The “we’re number one” sports fans gravitate to a similar, but vicarious category of connection and solace.
We put up with a lot to be with our fellow humans, part of a group. We try to “play nice,” even when not treated well. It’s better to be in the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, as the crude saying goes.
In the absence of human contact, some ingest food. Sustenance substitutes for love, lacking only the touch of another. Too much nourishment and the grub “joins” with you — becomes a larger and larger part of your body. The meal is now a permanent addition inside.
Humans make an effort at self-display, all the better to draw others to them. We want to be like magnets so that passers-by will “stick.” Clothes, hair style, makeup, and hair pieces are “attractive,” designed to “pull” the stranger close and prevent a solitary state. Sometimes external charm leads to the physical joining discussed earlier.
The “selfie-stick” generation takes this tack a step further. Not only do their public picture portraits cry out for crowds of onlookers, they offer the photographer, like Narcissus, a fascination and merger with his own creation: the glorified image of himself. Who needs intimacy when you can fall in love with yourself?
The computerized world provides an incomplete union with others, lacking the satisfaction of flesh. The fusion we seek is not electronic. You cannot crawl into the iPhone or laptop. A community of Facebook “friends” or a large blog following has its pleasures. Recognize, though, what social media alone can never be.
Some people acquire external objects, creating a kind of imagined fusion with a thing instead of a person. In effect, the buyer takes the material creation from the outside of himself to change his emotions inside. Goods define some people and become a point of pride, something “incorporated” within the identity.
Status and wealth, similarly, can be internalized to diminish a sense of naked, solo vulnerability. Those of a more academic bent might choose to pour knowledge into the brain, hoping for the same result.
Religion also reduces life’s insecurity — its essential isolation. Here the goal is to lose oneself in a complete identification and contemplation of God, at least in a hoped-for, heavenly afterlife.
In this world, however, none of the solutions I’ve discussed does the job fully. Sex acts are temporary, embraces are momentary, and the emotional benefits of eating and drinking are short-lived. Clothes and other objects make you feel complete for 10 minutes or 10 days. Knowledge acquisition is a treadmill marathon you can never finish. High status only lasts as long as the next TV season or term of office. To frustrate us even more, there are all those celebrities — owners of dazzle and accomplishment — we compare ourselves to. Their presence on earth is a kill-joy. We cannot merge with them. Instead we fantasize about them, creating an amalgamation in our dreams.
All this points to some common, but flawed notions of how to complete ourselves and have a more satisfying life:
- The pursuit of stardom is a fool’s errand. No, not because you are unlikely to reach the heavens. Rather, aiming for glory for its own sake ignores the work it will take. “Look at me!” is the selfie-stick generation’s solution to an existential crisis: like a drowning man who ignores a lifeboat, he instead reaches for a plastic comb floating on the water.
- All the material “stuff” ballyhooed constantly by advertising will only make you whole temporarily. We are leaky vessels. Commodities plug the holes too briefly.
- Looking for the true, perfect love — your soul mate — can be sensational if you find her, but still leaves you in your own skin, dealing with your own demons. Relationships are wonderful, but don’t cure you of the human condition. Love is not medication. Not so sure? Go to the pharmacist and request “One soul mate, please. A 30-day supply.”
- Moving to California is the “I need a change” solution. Yes, we do need to change, but traveling across the country “looking for yourself” reveals only one thing: you are the same guy who began the trip.
- The more time you spend in front of an electronically lit screen (computer, phone, TV, or movie) the less time you have for satisfying intimacy with someone nearby. Yes, I’m aware of looking at such a screen right now. Introverts do need more time alone!
So, what is the answer? Well, if I had a perfect one, I’d be famous. That said, I do have ideas:
- Recognize that real people are better (even if more dangerous) than virtual friends. Even so, they are not enough. You still need a life of purposeful action.
- Try to get outside of yourself. Things can’t be incorporated inside you and humans tend to resist ties that bind too much.
- You can’t bring the world within, so meet the globe halfway. Break out of the prison — the solitary confinement — of a repetitive, obsessive look in the mirror.
- Avoidance is a dead end. No satisfied or satisfying people live there. A life of adventure won’t invade your home and drag you out.
- Find captivating employment, generous and interesting people, and stimulating things to learn. Not to build your image and draw others to you, but because they are worthwhile in themselves.
- Recognize that you can’t have everything in life, but life can be delightful if you are lucky and wise. Stop multi-tasking and focus on the small number of things you believe have real value. Get off the treadmill of routine.
- Don’t run yourself ragged. Don’t be a human doing, always in a frenzy. You are a human being.
- The path to a portion of happiness might include meditation, intensely noticing the everyday world around you, and being sufficiently active to lose yourself in it. Think less and live more in the joyful instant. A baseball player trying to catch a long drive is not wondering about his acne.
- Accept the planet for what it is, which is a pretty messy place, but the only one we’ve got. Change the world if you have the energy and talent. If you don’t, accept what can’t be altered, at least by you.
- Know yourself. Everyone thinks he knows himself, but few approximate full self-knowledge. Figure out what you can do: those activities you might excel at with some practice, guidance, and effort. And recognize the tasks you should never even try. If you are a 5′ 4” male, don’t pin your hopes on playing professional basketball. If you are introverted, don’t become a political candidate. Value yourself for the best in you and make better what is amenable to alteration.
- Learning, however essential, will not always be fun and will often be painful. Sorry, I didn’t make the rule.
- Think for yourself. Received wisdom is frequently a worthless commodity. Live by a moral code you take a hand in fashioning, not something handed to you. This will require you to think and study. Most people will not or cannot make the effort, they just assume they are good.
- We create history, but mustn’t ignore the history we’ve already lived. Some amount of knowing where you’ve been is required, lest you revisit pitfalls and repeat mistakes.
- Having a personal mantra of “life is unfair to me” will not get you far. Better to adopt this paraphrase of the motto of the fine blogger, What It Takes To Be Me: life wasn’t meant to be easy; it was meant to be worth it. It will only be thus if you make it so despite the obstacles.
- Even if you accomplish all this, your life still won’t be perfect. You will continue to be in your own skin. Insecurity won’t have completely vanished. Yeah, a bummer. Get over it.
- Once you figure out who you are, wipe the blackboard clean. As my friend, Phil, likes to say, “I try to reinvent myself every day.”
Phil, by the way, is a smart guy. Listen to him.
The top photo is called Meall Ghaordaidh Behind Bars, sourced from Richard Webb’s transfer to Wikimedia Commons. The University of Chicago t-shirt comes from http://www.zazzle.com/
Dr. Stein, thanks for throwing some light on this dark side of what it is to be human. I’ve lived with insecurity from the moment I was old enough to understand my vulnerability as a human being. My insecurity has not lessened with time; it has only taken different forms.
My insecurity goes far beyond “living in my own skin.” It involves navigating a world that considers me and other members of my species as worthless and dispensable. It’s no wonder that we do everything in our power to feel a sense of belonging.
I expected you to see the truth in it, Rosaliene. When I was in practice, I often saw people who thought the world a sunny place except for the spot they occupied under the single cloud in the sky. That belief only served to make their travail worse than it already was. Your position certainly goes beyond the everyday insecurity of which I wrote. As always, thanks, for your thoughts and the prompt to underline an important point I was trying to emphasize.
Well done Gerald, just like the wisdom of Solomon. He was given wisdom, wealth and position as a king and took on many endeavours of life and pretty much came to the same conclusion you have. As he says ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ even if we are 3 thousand yrs further on. Its seems to just be the nature of being human to never quite get the hang of living with ourselves. It seems to me though that the moments of human kindness and connection that we give and recieve along the way just make the journey a little less bumpy.
This is the second time in my life I’ve been compared to Solomon. Memorable and humbling, for sure. My children might point to my feet of clay, however! Yes, you are right to point to those experiences and relationships that smooth the road. Thanks, Claire.
Reblogged this on Darque Thoughts.
This is amazingly true! So honest and real, this is why we have to open our eyes and except people for who they are. We are all different yet we are all so worried about what others think. You only live once (cliche I know) But its true, we need to live for ourselves (not in a selfish way) we need to think of ourselves and our happiness first, love ourselves no matter what mistakes we’ve made. If we love ourselves we will love and accept others.
Do what the heck you want with your life, its your life. And most importantly trust yourself. Technology has really affected peoples ways of thinking but not always in a bad way. So glad i read this, made me feel so much better. Thanks Dr Stein you’re a genius.
Hardly a genius, but thanks for saying so, anyway!
My body is 100% disabled and I am bedridden approximately 90% of the time. I live in excruciating pain from four spinal diseases and am slowly recovering from a severe concussion sustained three months ago.
With the concussion I went from being virtually bedridden in severe pain, to bedridden in a dark room with excruciating pain and intense loneliness.
I’m going on my eleventh year of being in this condition. I never thought I could experience more pain than the pain I experience from the spinal diseases (I have passed out from the pain several times), and then I feel back and got the concussion.
I would not have made it through seven weeks of darkness and being alone if I did not have the almost three decades of mediation under my belt.
Meditation (yoga =Union) is not merely something to undertake to stop your mind from racing and help lower your blood pressure, although it certainly helps in those departments.
The purpose of meditation is to discover our true Self, our true identity, and resides within our Heart’s. Within the Heart Center, underneath the mind stuff and drama (Maya) of the external world, is an ocean of bliss and love that is eternal. It is our birthright. I believe many of us spend lifetimes searching for this Truth outside, but the cosmic joke is that THAT which we have all been searching for is within ourselves.
This is not to say that contact with others is not necessary: quite the contrary.
But my point is, if we spend too much time looking outside for the love we so crave, when we are forced to be alone for months (for health reasons), we won’t have access to the internal/eternal Love that is our birthright.
Thank you, Bhakti. Certainly I can’t imagine a stronger endorsement of the value of meditation. As I’m sure you known, there is also much empirical research supporting its value.