While listening to Karen Carp-enter’s languid voice singing her hits on CD, I was struck for the umpteenth time by a line from the song Superstar that goes, “Loneliness is such a sad affair…” While the phrase sounds redundant to me, it has never failed to catch my attention.
To me, loneliness and being sad are interchangeable, yet I can’t get myself to look at the line as sophomoric or an example of bad lyric writing. More than the seeming redundancy, what strikes me is the way the line pierces into me. I thought that it might be Karen Carpenter’s delivery that affects me, but when I heard Usher’s version of the same song, and I still felt the same way. Both affirm that loneliness is indeed a sad affair.
Anyone who has ever experienced loneliness knows that it is dark, desolate, dire and daunting. It is also heavy, painful in a deeply personal way. It can feel as if the whole burden of life has latched onto one’s back and won’t let go. One is trapped in this prison of negative feelings, and despair and ennui soon follow.
After nearly six decades of life on this earth, I have observed loneliness in other people and in myself and I have learned a lot about it.
It is important to note my use of the word “observed.” It is a coping stance that I have learned through years of dealing with the ups and downs of life in general. For many decades, I allowed loneliness to totally engulf me when it came, as many people do. Perhaps it was my artistic temperament, or my festering immaturity, or both that made it so intense and personal.
But in the past 12 years or so, I have learned to manage loneliness better. When I would find myself in this sad affair, I learned to step back and observe it instead of be it. While I feel something, I know that it is only a feeling, not a state of being.
In other words, I have learned that there really is a palpable difference when one says “I am lonely,” as opposed to “I have a feeling of loneliness.” The first is “full on,” since it equates the emotion with one’s identity. “I am lonely” is no different from saying “I am Jim.” To be lonely is to be one and indivisible with it.
The other is about merely watching the emotion, observing it while recognizing and even feeling it happening, as it plays out in oneself.
What I am saying is that loneliness can be experienced in two ways: the personal, and the “non-personal” or not-so-personal. The first is, in my view, a smaller human experience. It is small because it literally makes one feel small, trapped in a prison of sadness, and unable to do anything except wallow in the feeling. And sometimes, one can feel like there is nothing else significant going on in life and in the world outside of this feeling of sadness.
“I am lonely and the whole world is lonely.” Everything is reduced to grayness and sadness. It is joyless, and it is narcissistic. I think it was the psychologist Erik Erikson who observed that when a child is sad, he/she thinks the whole world is sad too.
On the other hand, the second type of loneliness has the potential of being an infinitely larger experience. Loneliness (and any other feeling for that matter) is put in its place and recognized as a mere aspect of the self, or a feeling playing out, and not as an all-consuming, defining self-identity. The whole detachment thing that Buddhism espouses touches on this in a big way. One’s identity is not necessarily what one is feeling. Because feelings come and go, they are merely passing states, not fixed and immutable definitions of one’s self. One can recognize it, and yet know that this too shall pass, as everything does eventually.
Am I saying then that feelings should not be taken personally? But when all is said and done, aren’t we persons and therefore wired to experience things personally?
I remember an old joke about the Buddhist concept of the “no-self” that asks, “If there is no self, then who is feeling this toothache?”
The answer is, pain, pleasure and other emotions are all real, but they are also illusions. No one can deny how easily a migraine can overpower a cheery attitude. It is compelling, no doubt, and it can take over all of you. But at the same time, by merely looking out the window, one can also see that there is so much more going on in the world aside from one’s state of distress. As I write this, I can feel the rumbling of my empty stomach while I see birds chirping away, perched on my neighbor’s TV aerial. And the wind is blowing through the trees while clouds are slowly massing into something that may bring heavy rain. It is clear that a lot of things other than my pain are going on in the world. And by merely observing and being sort of detached from what is happening, I allow myself some relief from my hunger. It is not that the pain has stopped. It’s just that I got bigger and am able to experience more than just my pressing discomfort by simply being present to other things.
When we take things less personally, we gift ourselves with a magic wand of sorts that can transform our smallness, our narcissism, into a beautiful expansive maturity. It is always an advantage to be able to occasionally rise above petty (and even important) personal situations and see what is playing in the big picture of life. When we can rise above ourselves, we allow life to play out as it should. We don’t get tired due to our resisting, controlling or lamenting why things are not the way we want them to be.
“Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science,” said the great Albert Einstein. In other words, he extolled us to get over ourselves in order to experience the sublime.
Another hero of mine, the philosopher Ken Wilber, observed that one way to know we have graduated from a certain stage of growth is when we can begin to see and talk about ourselves in the third person.
When we can’t rise above something, we are still trapped in it. We have to drop a lot of this identity stuff. In other words, when you don’t get in the way, you see everything else.
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