The Statesman (Editorial) 14 March 2013
Web of Life
Coping With Loneliness And Solitude
By Martin Kämpchen
HAVE you ever woken up at night, become aware with wide-open eyes of the darkness around you, and felt a searing sense of loneliness? The space around you is empty, there is no line and no circle, no light and no colour for the senses and the mind to hold on to. Your life suddenly has no past and no future, it has no context and no structure. In such moments I need to switch on the light, sit down at my computer to write some letters and listen to web radio or read a book. It is no mere attempt at distraction, but it is an effort to reconnect with the Web of Life that surrounds us so comfortably and reassuringly during most of our waking hours.
This Web of Life embraces our family life and our professional life, it embraces our everyday joy of waking up refreshed and getting back to sleep after a day replete with activity. It includes being busy with our children and grandchildren, our parents, brothers and sisters. It satisfies us just to be on course in our routine life, and with some deep, unacknowledged anxiety we fear to be jolted out of this habitual comfort by some mishap.
I believe we in India are more afraid of loneliness than men and women in Western cultures. The psychologist Sudhir Kakar explains this with a lack of individualism. Unity with the family is more important than to “realise” oneself as an individual. Women and even men are capable of amazing sacrifices for the welfare of the family because there is no marked distinction between the family’s welfare and one’s own. Even in small episodes this tendency of staying together, to be group-oriented becomes evident. Adolescent boys and girls are uncomfortable sleeping alone at night. Entering a train anyone will rather choose a compartment already half-occupied than an empty one. Taking a trip alone is manifestly no fun, only group-travel will make adventure enjoyable. Such examples could be multiplied.
While most children in India have the privilege of sharing their parents’ bed up to almost puberty, we in Germany had our own bed right from birth, and later our own room, and we leave home at the age of twenty. If we don’t, something is suspected to be wrong. In other words, while we are raised with the objective to fortify us for a life spent alone, independent and on our terms, in India children are rather trained to accommodate themselves in a group. Both are important techniques meant to lead to personal fulfilment. But none of them really prepares us for that existential loneliness that the first lines of this essay describe.
Both approaches to children’s education, preparing them either for aloneness or for group-living, do not address and do not equip us to conquer such loneliness that engulfs us in a sleepless night; or, say, when a beloved person suddenly expires; or at the refusal of love offered; or when faced with failure or hate or violence. These are Moments of Truth: when the Web of Life is torn and that safety net is pulled from under our feet. We cannot even look at ourselves; nothing exists that mirrors our own life, nothing that establishes our successes and failures, or reveals our position in society and our legitimate dignity. At such times our imagination takes over. Is there anything more distressing than loneliness enhanced by a lively imagination? We then feel that our “demons” are let loose from our sub-conscience. We have to fight them. And fight them alone, because even if we take refuge in a group, we must fight this battle alone.
I remember that remarkable film, The Life of Pi, which was recently shown in cinemas all over the country. The young boy Pi has to survive on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The boat inhabits also a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger. Pi has to battle them as well as his loneliness in the ocean. He battles these manifestations of his internal demons with an astonishingly wise combination of accommodation and wariness. Finally only the tiger and Pi are left on the boat. We need each other to survive, Pi confesses. Pi needs the growling tiger, he needs his effort to keep the beast at bay, in order not to get lost in the vast loneliness of his life-situation. And the tiger needs Pi to find food and a shore. Similarly, we need our tiger, our “demons”, to tear away the web of our conventional life and find what we really are in the stark loneliness of the Moments of Truth.
Here is a necessary interjection: No matter what we have become by our cultural environment, whether we are moulded to be more independent or more group-oriented ~ we are as human beings meant for each other. Anatomically, emotionally, psychologically the mother is meant to bear children, a man is meant to intercourse with a woman, the elderly man and the elderly woman are meant to be supported by their children. A Human Contract and a Generational Contract bind us, as a society, together. These are primeval bonds. But strange to say, the strings which tie us to our sub-conscience are, at times, more powerful.
If you have a spiritual bent of mind, there is a further step to consider. Here comes in the term “solitude”. On the face of it, the condition is the same as loneliness: being without company. But persons whose yearning and imagination go beyond the manifest world and seek to earn a revelatory glimpse of a transcendent reality, do need solitude to pursue this aim. They need a temporary freeing from their conventional life, a rejection of their thought-processes and their natural tendencies. In other words, they need to embrace voluntarily that same loneliness which is so hard to bear when it throws itself on us unexpectedly. However, since seekers face that loneliness willingly and prepare themselves for its demanding existential rigour, they tend to be capable of seeing its assertive and invigorating aspect.
These seekers are left with what Sigmund Freud so aptly called the “oceanic feeling” which invades spiritual seekers after a while. We have Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony, and Rabindranath Tagore’s description and that of many others, regardless of religious affiliation and historical time.
Therefore, it is not irrelevant, but indeed a beautiful symbol, that Pi acts out his spiritual journey while drifting on a tiny boat in the ocean. And the truthfulness of the film is revealed in the numerous scenes depicting the ravishing beauty of the ocean ~ of the oceanic feeling. That is a Moment of Truth when loneliness loses its sting, when the need to be with family, with neighbours, with a group loses its urgency because everything is linked and gathered together in a cosmic connectedness which includes our little life, our family and loved ones and includes nature, the sun and the moon and even our imagination.
The writer is based in Santiniketan. His last book is Simply do it: Do it simply; Niyogi Books, New Delhi 2013