Existential Isolation

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You started your life physically connected to another organism. While you lived in the womb for around nine months you knew nothing of loss, sorrow, or loneliness. Your biological state of being made you feel connected because you were connected. Even for the first two years of life you did not have to worry much about being a separate entity. If you came from a relatively stable family mother and father took care of your every physical and emotional need.

Existential isolation is a feeling that usually occurs unconsciously but it’s very real. As a conscious being you can never go back to that state of connection in the womb, and you are doomed to wander the earth as an existential vagabond. No one can truly know what you are thinking except for you. No one can truly know what you are feeling except for you. No one can know the underlying motivations for your actions except for you. All your joys, every sorrow, all your triumphs, and every defeat are ultimately yours. As much as you would like to share the most important moments of life with others it’s impossible in an existential sense because you do not share a brain or a body with another organism.

This feeling of isolation that nags at the edge of consciousness is painful and people resort to all types of life solutions to try to ignore it. We don’t have many sources of community left in our culture to help combat the feeling of isolation. First let’s talk about family. Most of us do not have an extended network of family members who live and work close to us. We chase jobs and opportunities and end up living far away from good friends or family members. Many of us do not see our own siblings more than two or three times a year. We live in material comfort but not always with the human comfort that is so important to mental health.

Many don’t put much stock in religion anymore, at least not in the religions to which they have been exposed. Not only do they lose the community that a religious institution usually provides but also grapple with questions about their existence alone. They have to deal with the feelings of isolation and loneliness that go hand in hand with the ultimate isolation from life in the form of death.

You might work five days a week at a job you do not feel connected to, around people you do not feel connected to, producing a product that feels relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile you probably do not spend a significant amount of quality time with the people you care about during the week since you are working so many hours at your job.

No wonder depression runs so rampant in our culture. It’s exhausting to convince ourselves that the life we have been taught to want provides for the deeper existential needs when it clearly does not in many important ways. The need to live a connected life and avoid feelings of isolation by forging deep human relationships with those around us is simply more difficult here. It’s probably why Westerners are always shocked to see programs and documentaries where people living in relative poverty appear very happy and report feeling contented with their lives. It’s because they are, and a major part is the sense of community they feel from working and living together the way people have done since the early days of our cave ancestors. They wield the most powerful weapon there is against the painful feelings of existential isolation that are central to being human. Connection is essential to happiness and mental health.

The best way for you to effectively combat existential isolation is by letting people in and forging closer bonds with the people you care about while creating new relationships. It’s a little bit harder to connect in our culture because of some of the reasons mentioned in this chapter but you can do it with a little bit of work. Of course maturing as a person and increasing self-concept means knowing how to avoid destructive relationships too. Sometimes it’s better to disengage from abusive relationships in order to preserve your sense of self. You also have to make sure that you are not connected to family members in an unhealthy way in order to avoid becoming your own individual.

Here is an idea for where to start in case making the first step towards more connection is anxiety provoking. If you have ever had an interest that you did not pursue for one reason or another find a meetup group online in the city where you live and start going to meetings. There are numerous websites now that offer forums for meetups of all kinds. You’ll have a chance to rekindle your zest for life by pursuing a new interest and get a chance to meet a new group of people who are also there to engage with life.