Having a coffee with Martin last week he used a phrase which struck a deep chord with me. When referring to the process of change that we find ourselves going through he described it as “turning the earth”. Beautiful.
We probably underestimate the extent to which we change. Even in imperceptible ways we are adjusting, shifting, learning, forgetting and growing every day. At our highest level of consciousness it seems that we just go through the same routines constantly, getting up, going to work, spending time with friends or family, always in much the same places with much the same people. It’s a path we establish and then walk on daily until the ground is so well trodden that you wouldn’t know it was just a freshly dug piece of land when you were born, before we trod it into a path.
As a child I experienced a constant feeling of loneliness. My siblings were somewhat older than me and all I ever saw was my parents animosity and bitterness toward one another. I can’t remember a single day out with both of my parents although I would go to places with each of them individually. I spent a huge proportion of my childhood living in fear that my mother would leave and then reflecting, years later, on the possibility that everyone might have prospered more, including her, if she had. This, to me, is “turning the earth”, the process of refusing to accept an established belief and instead entertaining the notion of an alternative.
Throughout the years we are encouraged to accept a set of expectations which are imposed on us. We will go to school, study hard, gain good grades and get a good job or go to university and then get a good job. We will meet someone, settle down, have a family and that will be that until we’re put into the ground. Increasingly things aren’t working out like this for us. Good grades don’t guarantee a good job, good jobs don’t last forever, and we have also begun to realise that “good job” is a value judgement which is not our own. Our opportunity to meet people is in no way lessened and probably much easier, but our ability to make relationships work seems to be drifting alarmingly. Either that or our willingness to remain in dissatisfying situations is diminishing, probably both are true. That well trodden path of a “typical life” isn’t what we expected and the earth is turning whether or not we are holding the fork.
We often define ourselves as part of something bigger, wider. Our identities are caught in net which also snagged our partners, our social groups, our professions and so on. The idea that we can be both solitary and normal is absurd isn’t it? Maybe not.
We are so unique, each one of us, that whist we are connected we are not joined. Our lives are full of “should” and “must” but we are ruled by them at the sacrifice of “want” and “can”. We have come to regard singularity as abnormal. The imperative to find a mate in the absence of one can seem to reach panic levels, and consequently we repeat the mistakes of the past, and will surely do so again.
The person many of us seem to be least in favour of spending time with is ourselves. Perhaps the idea of coming to love the person you can never jettison is abhorrent, self indulgent, selfish and downright odd, but it might well be that the more comfortable we are with ourselves in our isolation the better equipped we are to make powerful and lasting connections with other people.
I can think of a number of clients I have had over the years who wrestled with the idea of being alone, translating it into loneliness when they are actually two very separate ideas. I think I know why we do this to ourselves, it’s because we walk down the well trodden path of the past to find our answers rather than turning the earth in the way that reminds us that just because it looked like that in the past it doesn’t have to look like it anymore.
When we find ourselves alone our instinctive response is to look back and find examples of being alone from the past. Broken relationships, exclusion from peer groups, bullying, unhappy childhoods, fractured families. These are all experiences which may well have left us feeling alone and lonely but whilst it is possible to feel lonely without being alone it is also possible to be alone without feeling lonely.
So why do we have a tendency to interpret being alone as loneliness? Why do we seem so desperate to be part of a union which is much wider than the union we enjoy with ourselves? It is perhaps our reliance on the affirmation and love of other people that prevents us feeling alone rather than the liberation we can experience from truly loving ourselves and therefore never finding ourselves alone again.
I am not suggesting for a second that life is not made richer and more fulfilling by the presence of others in it. Neither would I propose that central intimate relationships are anything other than wonderful and rewarding when they are working well, but maybe our desperation for them is the very emotion which undermines our ability to create them. Like sleep, we find that it comes to us when we relinquish our imperative to get it and we can only let go of that yearning once we are comfortable and happy to be alone.
Alone does not mean being abandoned, it does not mean rejection, betrayal, exclusion. It does not mean sitting in the darkness of our own quiet house waiting for the phone to ring or a knock at the door. Alone does not mean an absence from life, time on the sidelines or that we are somehow less than we want to be. Being alone does not in fact rob us of the engine of enthusiasm or even make anything in our lives physically different. The view through our own eyes, the sounds in our ears and the feeling we get when we reach out and touch are in no way compromised by the lack of someone in a gap which we have perceived and created. What is different is that there is perhaps less external pull or push. Rather than there being another hand on the tiller there is just ours, a singular control over the boat that is our life. From a basis of painful experience this can look like a well trodden path which we have no interest in walking again but if you turn the earth over it can look completely different. It can become freedom, liberation, opportunity. It can be a blank page that is waiting to be filled rather than one which was full but has been somehow erased. The only thing which prevents this change is you.
Discussing the notion of loneliness and being alone in a therapy session recently it became clear that an aspect of feeling lonely is also the perceived separation from “normality”. The question “does anyone else feel like this?” seemingly exacerbating the discomfort. Then the switch, the turn, the change in perspective provided by something, however imperceptible, which can make a difference of such magnitude. In this case it was an ancient Inuit poem. The knowledge that not only people around us today can feel small and alone against the vastness of the world, but that also those from different continents and ages feel it too. Not only did they feel it but they rejoiced in it too.
The great sea has set me in motion
Set me adrift
And I move as a weed in the river
The arch of the sky
And the mightiness of storms
I am alone
Trembling with joy.