Suffering is a lonely affair. No amount of sympathy, empathy, or compassion can make another feel what you, I, or anyone suffers. Even when they’ve been through something similar. We’re in it alone.
But that is likely true not only when we feel pain—physical, emotional, mental—but also when we experience positive emotions like joy, peace, or contentment. We’re in it alone.
Yesterday ranks as my worst day of misery since the start of my chemo treatments. Took “feeling like a bag of crap” to new lows. It’s hard to describe the “crap” because it’s uncharted territory for me.
The way I was sensing it, I suspect the medication was busy attacking my central nervous system. My entire body felt weak and tingling from inside out. The most distracting for me was a heavy cloud of fog over my brain that made focusing my attention on anything near impossible.
I didn’t fight it. I didn’t wallow in self-pity. I just rolled with the punches.
So, I spent most of the day sleeping and listening to music.
Waking up today feeling somewhat stronger, I retrieved a glimmer of a memory of a rare time in my twenties when I stayed in bed all day (I can’t even recall why!). That memory sparked my thoughts in this post.
On that day in bed, I read She Came to Stay, the first (and autobiographical) novel written and published (1943) by Simone de Beauvoir. And that novel (based on a real-life pre-WWII love triangle) cracked open in a sensory way my perception of the existential angst we all live with every day, throughout our life’s journey, right up to our own death. We’re in it alone.
The misfortune is that although everyone must come to [death], each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days… and yet we were profoundly separated from her.Simone de Beauvoir (A Very Easy Death)
For those not familiar with de Beauvoir (1908-1986), she was a French intellectual, writer, second-wave feminist, political activist, unconventional lover/partner to existential philosopher Paul Sartre, and was belatedly recognized as an influential philosopher in her own right. Her most famous book (which I read later) was The Second Sex, a classic tome that describes the socially constructed role of women in a patriarchal society (an important topic to me beyond the scope of this post).
But here’s the thing. Coming to the understanding way back then that life only has the meaning we ourselves give it did not depress me or plunge me into despair. Many others do get distressed, I’m told.
Rather, I reveled in my newfound awareness of existentialism as a philosophy of human existence in a mostly absurd world. It made sense to me. I related to it completely. It freed me from (many) external controls.
…no people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.James Baldwin
It was—and still is—the (cultural, social, religious, etc) stories we tell ourselves that often strike me as absurd, or at least as not carved in stone, changeable; yes, those very stories that others (maybe you?) need to believe to explain the “why” or the value of our lives. And I’m especially turned off when those stories propel us to live our lives and spend our precious time according to the expectations placed on us by others, often inauthentic lives meant to please those others, rather than to fully realize our own natural abilities, our dreams, and our desires.
And that awareness, in turn, gifted me with agency—that is, it made me recognize that it’s my own feelings, thoughts and actions that define and express my personal power, that I have choices, that I don’t need to play by anyone else’s rules if I choose not to.
And it made me accept early on in my adult life that we’re in it alone.
You may be asking how this relates to how I’m feeling about my treatment progress right now.
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I’m just recognizing a small turning point earlier in my life. One when I internalized that our lives are the accumulation of millions of small choices we are given and decisions we are free to make. (It must also be acknowledged that we are bestowed our own hand of cards, no choice over those, making some of us luckier than others; yet it’s up to us how we play them.)
Maybe it does. We’re in it alone means to me that no one can feel what I’m feeling right now… and that is okay! This knowledge (belief?) helps me manage my expectations of what others can do for me. There’s no easy fix.
And for myself, I choose to keep rolling with the punches a little while longer. Three sessions of chemo therapy to go. A hopeful light is seen at the end of the tunnel.
So now let me end by saying, we’re in it alone has a but. This is a big BUT.
We’re in it alone, BUT the love, care, concern expressed by so many friends over the past weeks is a huge part of the meaning I give to life. Without these compassionate human connections, my life would indeed be meaningless.
…[T]he individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and to other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of himself.Simone de Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity)
I will write more about the importance of relationships to me in a future post.
I’m eager to read how my thoughts today land with you.
PS. This was not meant to be a book review in any sense. In fact, I’d not recommend She Came to Stay to anyone but diehard existential fans. This post was about how the book affected me and just a couple of my learnings.
PPS. A soft reminder to sign up for notifications at the top right menu (if you haven’t already).
But…., nevertheless, we’re in it alone !
Reading this, I feel like I want to read again Simone the Beauvoir….
Tu m’as bien comprise, Mireille. 💜🙏💜
[…] don’t demand that I deviate from my innate set of values and principles. As I wrote in my previous post, this empowers me and gives me my freedom and […]
I have felt my existentialism since I was a child. Yes, alone. As a child, laying down on the grass and spending every evening looking at the massive sky, with stars glowing million miles away. I have always been a contemplative and open to others. I still see myself on a journey alone with moments of great pleasure connecting to nature and others. That to me is awe inspiring. I am with you, My Dear Francisca, alone
You clearly have understood my meaning, dear Helen. No amount of my love and caring for you can make me fully grasp the hard challenges you face. Yet I am with you. 💜🙏💜
So sorry you felt so bad Francisca. We have no tools for when we venture into unknown experiences and virgin territory. When I need support I feel for the surrounding love that is ever present and invite it more to deeply nurture and heal me. The earth is so still and present in the Uk at the moment, you can hear a pin drop.
You are so right, Alison… the love and care around me is what nurtures me. I wish I could get further out into nature, but that doesn’t seem like an option for me right now. Thanks for commenting. And I’ve started reading your newly published book and eager to read more: Daring to Feel, Awaken the healer within! 🌸🙏🌸
Francisca, I have been following your journey since we last connected. Although I usually don’t comment, I wanted you to know your words inspire me! Thank you for sharing them. Wishing you peace, strength, and better days ahead. ❤️
That is music to my ears, Deb! Thank you so much for following and for your well wishes. My best wishes right back at you! 💜🙏💜
I am so sorry to read you had a very tough day !
Yes, in the end we are all alone.
“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.”
-Hunter S. Thompson-
Yes, alone, but not lonely. I’ve rarely felt lonely in my life, even when without a partner or company. And also yessSS to liking and respecting yourself.
I appreciate your caring about me, Sidney. 🌸🙏🌸
No (wo)man is an island
For our external survival, yes, we are a weak social animal that needs the “tribe” to stay alive. Plus humans have a strong drive for belonging, which I’d say explains why we often agree to play by (social, cultural etc) rules that don’t serve us well. And on the wonderful side, we also connect with others to build meaningful relationships, with love, caring, and kindness. 🌸🙏🌸
I have a poem on my desk and your writings made me think of it.
” I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it…Charles Swidnoll.”
Take the rest you need dear friend.
I’d agree with Swidnoll, Joey, hard though that may be. Thanks for your caring, dear friend. It means a lot to me. 🌸🙏🌸
I am saddened that you had such a rough day yesterday, dear friend.
The question that came to me as I read your post is, “Is it a binary choice whether we are alone or wholly a creature of society, or is there a spectrum between the two of different gradations of the mixture between total independence and social belonging? Must each person find their own sweet-spot on that spectrum?”
Thanks for the caring, Lable. It really was a rough one.
The way I see it, we have no choice about being alone. It’s our fundamental nature. No one can feel or think what we do. The closest we can get to “connecting” with others is through our choice to love, to feel compassion, to care about others. And yes, how much we yearn for and then adopt social belonging, whether that’s through culture, religion, or following social norms, is part of the myriad of choices we make in our lives. It’s better when those choices are freely made with critical thought and awareness of consequences. (I could give dozens of examples of where I chose not to follow the norms and consequently am often seen as the ‘outsider” within the broader society I live in.) Make sense? 🌸🙏🌸
Yes on everything you said, but personally I do feel connection is possible. Warrants a great and deep conversation. 💜