On being Insecure and Alone

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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.

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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.

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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/

Getting Out of Your Head: Solving the Problem of Negative Self-Absorption

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Sometimes it helps to realize that you are not the center of the whole world. Not so easy, is it?

In a moment I’ll suggest an exercise that may help, but first a few words on the problem of being too much “in your head.”

We know our own thoughts and feelings directly, from the inside out. With others, we understand them only from the outside, no matter how close we are to them or however much empathy we feel. We see what they look like, what they do and say, and how they describe themselves.

Too much absorption in our own thoughts about ourselves, however, can be a problem. It is easy to feel unique, not just in a way that feels good, like some strutting peacock or narcissistic overlord. We are not talking about self-love, but about something more like self-doubt or concern, and potentially anxiety or depression.

When our sense of uniqueness becomes attached to the idea that few others feel as bad as we do, life can be miserable. That includes the time you spend worrying about what others think of you, as well as all the moments preoccupied with distressing thoughts. An inner life that is spent targeted almost exclusively on one’s own problems can create a life-sucking whirlpool inside your head.

Regrettably, the more we think about our troubles, the worse we sometimes make them. Anxiety, worry, and self-doubt tend to feed on themselves. Downcast thoughts become automatic. Looking down piles up until those ruminations tower over us and block the bright side from our view. It can feel like living alone in a cave with only a hand-held torch providing any light.

Before you get too far down that looming road, here is an exercise that might help give you a little perspective and prevent you from falling into the cycle I’ve just described. Start by taking a walk, or ride a bus or a train.

What I’m suggesting is that you look at some of the cars on the streets and highways, parked or in motion. As you do, ask yourself a few questions.

Who might own that car? Might they own it outright or be paying for it on an installment plan? Might they have had financial problems, present or past?

What could go wrong with that car? What has already been broken and fixed? Don’t nearly all cars need maintenance, repair, and eventual replacement? Don’t cars sometimes get into accidents?

Remember that someone specific owns that car. Try to imagine the life of that person, both the good and the not so good. Might he be out of work? If not, what kind of job or jobs does he have? Is he happy with his boss and co-workers? What might his job be like, both the positive and the negative?

Who has ridden in the car with its owner? People he loved, friends, coworkers, dates, and so forth. Now imagine the range of possible relationships he has and those he has lost, from a very small number to a large one. Might he even be alone more than he wants? Might he desire more social contact, but be afraid of it? Think of the good times and the not so good times, the varieties of human social experiences.

Do you see anyone in a parked car who is reading a newspaper? Think of the news stories and problems involving other people who have nothing to do with you or with the reader. Don’t miss the reported awards and successes either, those that inspire you or fuel your ambition.

By now, I think you’ve got the idea. We endanger ourselves by too much inward focus. Most lives have much in common. The routine events tend not to be a big deal. The surprises, especially when they aren’t welcome, certainly can be a big deal; but, we aren’t as unique or special as we think most of the time. We don’t see more than a little of the lives around us, and people tend to put a good face on their public selves. Still, the laundry needs to be done, the heart will break occasionally, and we all laugh and suffer at one time or another, however much of the latter is hidden.

We live in a world that portrays itself unrealistically on TV and elsewhere. It is far too easy to believe that everyone else is having a better time and a better life — one that we’d grab if only it were offered. But scratch the surface and realize that few lead truly charmed lives, as the poem Richard Cory reminds us. For a wonderfully alive (but realistically) upbeat take on our shared human condition, also read Walt Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.

You probably have more in common with all those people who own all those cars than you might think. If you can take that knowledge and generate some activity that moves your mind away from your own troubles, there is no dishonor in doing so. Even reading out loud to yourself can be active enough to get you out of your head and into someone else’s: the writer’s head and his characters’ heads.

One thing to remember in particular: everything is temporary. All those cars you saw on the road won’t be there forever, nor will most problems feel as they might today. Get on with your life the best you can. That’s what the other drivers are trying to do. The more you try to do it, the less time there will be to think introspective thoughts that might not be helping you.

The roads lead in lots of directions. Explore them, especially those that might aim at something bigger than yourself — outside yourself.

You won’t always succeed. Nobody does. But be sure to keep driving, with your eyes on the road, looking inward only when necessary. The person who taught you how to drive must have told you to keep your eyes wide open and alert to what is happening on the highway. Good advice, too, for the highway of life.

The top image is called Mirror Image and is the work of Amartya5, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.