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).