Sometimes you hear someone say, “We are born alone and we die alone,” which I always have thought is very hilarious. We are actually born into a crowded room most of the time, and we are probably just as likely to die in a crowd as alone. There seems to be some deep, serious wisdom in that thought of our being alone, and I suppose the point of it is that we are responsible for our own lives and we have to direct them. Which, of course, is true. But really.
In some respects we are always alone because no one else has exactly the same experience that we have. Red may look completely different to you than it does to me and I would never know that. I don’t have your eyeballs. Or your brain. We cannot exactly convey our experience in words. We try. And the other person searches his or her memory bank for something that seems similar so he or she can approximate our experience inside of him or herself. But ultimately, the richness, the depth, and the meaning of our experience is unique to us and impossible to articulate. So in some sense, we are always alone, even in the most intimate encounters.
At the same time, we are never really completely unalterably alone. Because inside of our heads are all of the relationships we have engaged in, all of the reflections given to us by other people, the received wisdom of our culture and our families, and an infinite number of other relationship experiences that can unfold on their own in our minds. We have endless dialogues with other people, we imagine what people think of us, we alter our behavior based on the approval or disapproval of people in our past. We are in a constant conversation with all of the people we have encountered, and more so with the significant ones. There is a cast of thousands inside of our minds vying for our attention.
We know ourselves by the reactions of other people. There is no mirror so effective as the smile or the frown of someone we love. And so, in some sense, we are continually trying to relate, trying to please the crowd in our heads. Negotiating the relationships and working out who we are and who we want to be based on what we have learned from the people around us.
Ultimately, what we can do about this paradox of being alone and being in a crowd is to raise our awareness of what is going on inside of our heads. We can learn to recognize the many voices and choose which ones to strengthen and which ones to ignore. And not based on how noisy they are, how insistent they are, or how righteous they are. But because we have considered our own inner territory and chosen how we want to live in it. That, of course, is best done in the context of a solid relationship.