Dear Pinky and Spike:
I’ve been complaining about how the three of us have known each other for nearly our entire lives, yet we’ve never talked about what life is. I’m the most culpable since I’m the one who has spent so much time and energy trying to understand the suffering of people who have trusted me to help them. In the hope of rectifying this situation, I enjoy writing about what I can do for people in your circumstance. That is the rationalization for this attempt at philosophizing.
Back to the four existential issues Yalom thinks we need to come to terms with in order to have sound mental health and to be “whole” as human beings. He says the issues are: Death, Purpose, Freedom of Choice, and Aloneness.
When he describes “Aloneness,” he’s not talking about being alone or being lonely. He means a deep — and frequently sudden — insight that, while we may have company during all or most of the trip, we are all flying solo through life, and, ultimately, we will be alone at its very end. I suspect that the first few times the insight hits us we do anything we can to suppress or deny it; after all, it negates whatever sense of belonging we’ve acquired since birth. It may be a major cause (or the cause) of bad relationship matches.
Personally, I hope that coming to terms with each of Yalom’s Big Four is a one-time deal.
When in my mid-40s and living alone, I remember exactly where I was when my foot hit the pavement and a deep, strong version of my inner voice told me: “YOU ARE ALONE. YOU ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO TO AVOID IT, YOU ALWAYS WILL BE.” This voice was so commanding that the best response the rest of me could come up with was a sincere, “Oh.” It was the right thing to say. The recollection of that experience was quite alive when I was privately tutored in the subject by a 12-year-old girl.
She was one of the middle school kids I knew from going on those long, long bike trips. She was wonderfully lively, athletic and optimistic. The old-fashioned phrase “uplifting” is apt.
Just before the last ride of the year, she was diagnosed with a congenital disorder requiring immediate surgery that would leave her paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors wouldn’t predict the extent of her post-operative recovery. This grim prognosis was the reason why she and her parents decided that she would go on the two-week ride and accept the risk of postponing the surgery. Being with and around her on that trip was a poignant experience for all of us.
The ride concluded without mishap and summer began. I heard she had had the surgery at UCSF, and she had been brought back to what’s now Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital. Back then we just called it “Rehab.” Do you know how well you have to know someone to feel you should visit her in the hospital? I don’t. I definitely knew this girl well enough, but I couldn’t go. I thought, “I’ll go out to Rehab, I’ll see how disabled she is, and I’ll cry. What good could that possibly do anyone?”
But finally I went anyway. My friend was a physical wreck, but she was also getting better. And she was uplifting. She was so uplifting that I went out to see her in Room J three or four times a week, usually with a lunch from somewhere other than the hospital kitchen. I watched her grow stronger with each visit.
She’s a great talker; when a thought goes through her mind, it comes out her mouth. With her it’s a good thing because she’s always kind, often funny and occasionally wise.
While she was jabbering away during one of our lunches, I got a precious lesson about Aloneness. She said something like this:
“When I wasn’t too scared to think, which wasn’t very often at first, I was obsessed with how it wasn’t my fault that I was paralyzed. I didn’t do anything wrong, or at least not this wrong, so what’s going on? Is this even a real experience? After asking myself (and anyone in my room) that question a zillion times, I got bored with it. So far I couldn’t come up with an answer — and no one gave me an answer that made any sense to me. So it was a bad question and asking it wasn’t helping. Trying to figure out why I, instead of someone else, was stuck in a bed in Room J wasn’t going to help me get out of it either.
“I started thinking about all the people who wanted to help me — people who love me. I had friends who went to San Francisco so they could be with me for the surgery. I think the surgeon really cared about me. He told me the surgery was a lot harder — a lot worse — than he thought it would be. Maybe that sounds like a bad thing to say to me; it wasn’t. It meant he respected me enough to tell me the truth. He knew I needed the truth to deal with all of this.
“Then we came back to Santa Barbara. The people who work at this hospital are amazing. They really want to help me. There are so many different kinds of therapists working on different parts of me. They all have good hearts or they wouldn’t be able to come to this kind of work every day. I can feel them focusing their good energy toward me. My friends and all the middle school teachers want to make me well. My mom is like a nurse, therapist, doctor, nutritionist, coach, psychologist, you name it. She has to work, but she comes three times a day and she stays overnight. She’d do absolutely anything to make me well. She’d trade places with me like that. But she can’t, and I don’t think I’d let her.
“None of this is my fault, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’m the only one who can get me out of this. No one can love me or care about me enough to do it for me. In the end it has to be Me, Me, Me. I hate it, but that doesn’t make any difference either. I have to get over it, and I really am.”
This child — the ultimate social creature — accepted her Aloneness. She bravely came to the conclusion that it was her only way out. She got it, and she passed it on to me so I could get it without the attendant suffering.
To the divorcing person experiencing the profound sense of complete Aloneness during their Depression, the story is meant to say, “You are having your time in Room J, and there seems to be only one way out.”
Next time I’ll describe some of the behavior I’ve seen from people who bravely attempt to beat the Depression by pushing forward with their divorce, thinking, “It will be better when this is over.”