I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?
Wm. Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act II, Sc. 2)
I have experienced, at turns, grief, suffering and depression during the past eight years. And at times, I thought that I would never embrace the world the way that I had when I was younger. I thought often of how I could kill myself without making it look like a suicide. I fantasized the accidental death, the release from all of this; I wanted the sleep of the dead. No dreams. No nightmares. Just nothingness.
Hamlet's "No more."
I had lost my way. I couldn't appreciate the spectacular or the mundane. Numbness enveloped me. I went to the mall and bought things. Gave gifts to my friends. Ate extravagant meals. Bought outrageous clothes. Still, I was miserable.
And yet, now I greet each day as a gift. I have found balance between feelings that as a human I am nothing, and that as a human I have the potential to change worlds. What happened? It wasn't one big life-changing epiphany. I waited for meaning to reveal itself to me like the prize behind Door Number Three. But it didn't come, and at times, I took tremendous comfort from reading Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus. Yes. We spend our days pushing the weight before us. But Camus imagined Sisyphus happy, and so, imagining myself Sisyphus, I resolved to smile.
What really needed to happen was that I needed to learn to love my own company. My quest for companionship, my absolute terror of loneliness, had led me to do a lot of stupid, sometimes dangerous things.
Six years ago, I was in Seattle. A friend who knew I was homesick had flown me out to spend a few days. I wandered the U-District—the funky, noisy area close to the University of Washington—a place I had spent years. The U-District had changed, but not so much and I found myself going in and out of cafes, restaurants, and shops that I had frequented as an undergraduate, and later, as a married graduate student with a small child. Here I was, back again after eight years away. I admit, I hoped that being there would help me understand where I was.
What had once been an ice cream shop had become a coffee house. I remember that the light was thick and golden, the air disturbed by the door that opened and closed as each person entered, and I was sad. I had been dumped just before the trip, and I felt bruised and worn out around the edges. I'm not sure what serendipity had led me to buy a book at the U's bookstore, but as I read the words, I knew that I was reading what I needed to hear. Yes, it was epiphany. But not those bullshit epiphanies they give you in movies. This was the tiny corner of one, and it was up to me to do the work that would reveal the rest.
Rainer Maria Rilke was advising a young poet about life, about art, about learning to love the self, about learning to trust one's own company.
And to speak of solitude again, it becomes always clear that this is at bottom not something that one can take or leave. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all. But … we must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm…For it is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed; it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself ready to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively from his own existence… We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.
Rilke is not an easy read. His writing is so full that I have found it necessary to read and re-read passages, only to discover that my understanding of that passage has changed as time has gone by. Or as my life has gone by. But Rilke is telling us two things: we must embrace the fact that we are alone and not be overwhelmed by that; and we must embrace the fact that the world will offer to us things that we don't understand at the time they are offered, but they are huge gifts, and if we can accept them, our boundaries will expand.
If I was to make changes as an individual, if I were to develop a different way of being with myself so that I might be different when in the company of others, that then would be my way out of the pit into which I had fallen. It was incumbent upon me to stop using people to fill the gaps in my life, to stop using people to keep me from having to be alone, to stop using people—even if I believed my intentions were good.
And thus began a long, slow process of finding comfort in my own company. May Sarton once said (I'm paraphrasing) that "loneliness is the absence of the self; solitude is the company of the self. " As an artist, creation needed to take place in solitude. It didn't mean that I had to go wall myself up as an anchoress; it meant that I had to learn to sit and be quiet and hear what was going on within me.
The process is not unlike what I've experienced when I've been hiking in the mountains. The trip up the side of a mountain path is exhilarating and exhausting. When you're making elevation gains in short bursts, your legs ache, your heart speeds up with the effort. But your insides—well your insides feel as if they are going to burst when you see the what is being revealed to you as you climb. And, when you have finished climbing, you admire the view, and then you return whence you came—but you're changed by the experience.
The innovation that we need to change our culture is this, I think. My wish for humanity is that each of us as individuals find a way to take pleasure in our own company. This is not to say that we should stop being social animals. I don't mean that at all. But I believe that if each of us could get quiet with ourselves, could spend days thinking and creating and revering this earth upon which we carry out our lives, that these collective actions done individually will change our culture.
Without the grasping need that loneliness fills us with, perhaps we would have less desire for "things." We would feel less driven to mine the earth and strip her of her riches. We would feel less need to want what someone else has. We would channel our energies into creating a more just world, and inhabit an earth that will be able to recover itself once we stop stripping it bare in our desperation to find something meaningful.
Meaning lies within each of us. It isn't immediately apparent. You have to work to find it, and the beginning of that experience is done alone, within ourselves, as we accept that the things that are out of control that happen to us are part of the ebb and flow of an ordinary life. But the ordinary life is worth living.