The Loneliness of Being Human


I was speaking with a friend the other day and he asked, “Jacob, what do you think of the state of the world?”

He was asking mostly about the environment, climate change, the scary shift in global politics toward xenophobia.

“Well,” I said, “at the risk of sounding young, optimistic and naive, I think we’re a young species.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean that we still have a lot of learning to do,” I said, “we’ve only had thumbs for a few million years. And we’ve made a lot of progress, real progress, in a relatively short period of time. Go back a few hundred years and the Holocaust wouldn’t be condemned as a moral atrocity. It would be considered a marvel of modern efficiency.”

He had mentioned a former friend of his that he had distanced from when he realized she was anti-semitic.

I continued:

“I remember seeing a video while in social work school about Iranian propaganda promoting Tehran as a woman-friendly environment. It was clearly an exaggeration at best, produced to counteract western narratives of primitive patriarchy and misogyny. But can you imagine even needing to pretend such a thing a few hundred years before? Feminism is very new. #Metoo is very new. Human rights and democracy are so new that even we who supposedly embrace them don’t really understand them. And if you look around the world, many of us haven’t received the software upgrade yet.

“I’m not saying all is well. We may very well be headed toward destruction. Whether through environmental collapse or some other calamity, there’s no guarantee that we as a species will survive. But I think life will survive. And eventually life will lead to consciousness. We may pass the baton to artificial intelligence that we create or eventually sentient cybernetic cockroaches might watch our cat videos with hermeneutic fascination. But one way or another, I believe contemplative, self-aware life will continue. And Nature seems somewhat indifferent how that happens or how much pain and loss occurs on the way. The dinosaurs died out with no one to mourn them. We’re basically just fuzzy dinosaurs who think we’re in an entirely different category.”

I was hoping to address the blend of anxiety, guilt and fear that I see prevalent among modern people who are concerned about the state of the world. It’s easy and tempting to imagine that somehow we could have prevented this, that if only we had listened to the wisest among us, whether scientists or saviors, our world wouldn’t be so scary and painful.

Our stories paint pictures of battles between Good and Evil, valiant heroes who defeat nefarious masterminds intent on domination and destruction. Although heroes and villains exist, I don’t think their existence has as much relevance to the current crises as we think.

Visions of Apocalypse have been with us forever. Give a creature a curious mind, an opposable thumb, and oil in the ground, and probably that creature will create a very similar situation to the one we’re in. We’re wired for exploration and increased control over our environment. We’re also blessed with the capacity for moral-philosophical-behavioral learning. It just takes a long, long time.

All of this is meant as a preface.

I woke up in the middle of the night, wrote down my dreams and lay in bed feeling lonely.

It wasn’t an ordinary loneliness like when you’re single and missing romance and companionship, or in a loving relationship that’s currently in a state of rupture and disconnection. Or wanting to see a friend when they’re busy. Or feeling like you don’t have close friends or family members you talk to.

It felt deeper than that.

I told my friend “we’re like dinosaurs,” and I meant it. As far as we know, there was nothing the dinosaurs could have done to have prevented their extinction. Probably they had no awareness of it beyond each individual’s struggle to survive. Yet we’re also not like dinosaurs. At least since we left the tribal lifestyles of our ancestors (and I believe probably throughout that period also), we’ve been lonely. We’ve wondered if we belong, not just with a particular group of people or in a particular place, but in the ecosystem, in the world, in the cosmos.

Our longing for God is a longing for reassurance. The same is true for our longing for idealized romantic partnerships, friendships and communities. We crave connection to a larger, encompassing Whole, because being conscious is so profoundly lonely.

I’m aware as I write this of a voice inside me saying, “And? What’s the call to action? What workshop or group can people join to solve this problem?” There isn’t one. Therapy has helped me tolerate the loneliness. It hasn’t ameliorated it. The one consolation that came to me prompted the title of this post. The loneliness is not personal. Although we all have a unique story of how our loneliness has affected and shaped our life, the fact of being lonely is universal. Ironically, the more in touch with that loneliness we are, the more connected we are to what it means to be human.

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