October 25, 1990

Individuality and Loneliness

The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

Thomas Wolfe

For almost all of my life, I proceeded on the assumption that most people were like me and looked at things the same way that I did. This was in spite of the fact that I was repeatedly confronted with the evidence that my assumption was wrong. After having been worked over more times than I care to admit, I was willing to acknowledge that my assumption may have been not quite valid. After that, I looked for people who looked at things in the same way as I did. One failure after another still didn't convince me of my uniqueness.

It was only in the last few years that I have finally come to the conclusion that there is nobody like me. What's more, there is nobody who is like anybody else --there can't be. I suspect that there are more identical snowflakes than there are identical people and I was taught that no two snowflakes are alike.

I sired and raised a pair of identical twins. When they were infants, I mixed them up all the time until one chipped a front tooth. I would get the child to smile and would then know who I was talking to. Their genes are the same, but their life experiences began to diverge at birth. They are now totally different people despite the fact that if their hair etc. was done the same, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart.

Being different sets us apart from our fellows. Being separate results in feelings of isolation and loneliness in everyone.

We fight that individuality because it sets us apart and makes us feel alone -- and feeling alone hurts. Many of us as children wished that we had a twin to truly share things with. If you asked my twins, I don't think that they would say that being a twin makes one less lonely; at least not for long. They now share the feelings of isolation of other people. Having a clone doesn't change things much, although it probably made a difference when they were very young.

Most of us settle for a spouse or lover and a few friends with whom we share a very few likes or dislikes. For men it may be a fishing or hunting buddy or a work colleague. Liking beer, baseball and pinochle hardly makes people alike. Yet it is enough of a communality to alleviate the sharp pain of loneliness.

Women share the universal experiences of womanhood such as bearing and raising children. Yet no two women react in the same way to those experiences. The mass of differences between individuals vastly outweighs the few similarities.

This need to alleviate the loneliness caused by our individuality leads people to get married, join clubs, churches, political parties and political movements, play bridge and watch ball games. Religions and cults rely on the fact that people can't tolerate loneliness. I think that most of us live within our tribe. church or club, carefully nurturing the illusion of our sameness. It's a great comfort. Anything that relieves that loneliness, if only for an instant, is a comfort, since the last time that each of us really wasn't lonely was when he was in the womb or at the breast.

Some people flaunt their individuality --usually in the company of others who similarly flaunt their individuality. Individuality is the stock-in-trade of a good writer, yet if he is too individual he will have no readers and feel even lonelier.

Anything that makes us feel that we are not really alone makes us feel better. The ability to make someone feel a part of a greater whole and not alone is the stock in trade of charismatic leaders and demagogues. There can be real danger, when one tries to alleviate loneliness, from people who will exploit a person's loneliness for their own gain. It's easy to get caught up in a mass movement. Cults rely on the fact that loneliness is unbearable.

The need to feel a part of something leads lodge members to wear identical clothes and hats. When carried to its extreme, this search for sameness can yield a stadium full of people who are dressed alike even to the swastikas on their arm, all raising their right arm and shouting in unison "Sieg Heil!"

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