I’VE BEEN HEARING FOR YEARS THAT ISOLATION is a fundamental quality of the human condition. For years, whenever I’ve heard someone repeat the old saying, “You’re born alone, you live alone, and you die alone,” I’ve nodded my head sagely.
The thing is, I am realizing as I age that I’m not sure what that saying really means.
In some ways it is true, of course. No one can know with perfect certainty what it is like to be you. In some important sense we will always be fundamentally mysterious to one another. This is what makes not just falling in love, but staying in love so intriguing and exhilarating (but also maddening and frustrating). No one can live your life for you, and no one can make, and bear the consequences of, the essential decisions that need to be made at turning points of your life. There is a certain inescapable loneliness in these indispensable qualities of adulthood.
That said, I think we need to admit that in some sense we belong to each other as much as we do to ourselves. Autonomy is wonderful and essential, but too much of it leads to desolation, and even to pathology.
Are we truly “born alone”?
You come into this world out of your mother’s own body, with an umbilical cord connecting your body to hers, and covered with fluids that, moments before, were part of her, and within seconds you are in her tender arms being held and cared for with the most primal love there is.
Do we truly “live alone”?
Not if you have even the barest shred of empathy, the most minimal social skills. Have you ever noticed that when something awful happens — a natural disaster or national trauma like 9/11 — we instinctively drop all the masks we use to isolate ourselves from others (money, pride, class, etc.), and we remember, if only for a few precious hours or days, that the only thing we have that matters is each other? We are alone only to the extent that we willfully forget our fundamental interconnectedness.
When I was in the Army, there was a guy in my unit named Rivera. He was pretty much liked by everyone — he had a quick smile, and would take some of the newer guys under his wing and show them what was expected of them. He had a very pretty wife, and a new son named for him.
One day when we were in the field on a training exercise, Rivera violated policy and picked up a dud round, a grenade, and it went off in his hands. It took him about five minutes to bleed out while the Medevac helicopter was called in. He died in the arms of a buddy of his, a surfer from L.A. named Griffin, who alternated between saying reassuring things to Rivera and screaming into the radio for the chopper to hurry up and get there.
After we got back from the field, we had a formation at the end of the month (on payday) where the first sergeant called the last names of everyone in the unit, in alphabetical order. As our names were called each soldier answered with his first name and middle initial.
He went through the names, and then he called “Rivera!” There was a terrible silence; he called again, “Rivera!” and everyone felt the silence resonate again; he called a final time, his voice breaking, “Rivera!” and by then everyone had tears in his eyes. His wife was standing nearby holding her new baby, and we could hear her crying softly. In that moment, we ceased to be black or white, privates or sergeants or captains, rich or poor, urbane or bumpkin. We were brothers, just brothers bound together in our grief. We missed our friend.
Do we always “die alone”?
My father took his last breath on Earth 18 years ago with me holding his hand, surrounded by his family, and as he left this world I said a silent prayer of thanks that I’d had him for 34 years, and for him to have a safe journey. All of us had told him that we loved him.
The late author Kurt Vonnegut, in his 1996 novel “Timequake,” is on point here:
When I celebrate the idea of a family and family values, I don’t mean a man and a woman and their kids, new in town, scared to death, and not knowing whether to s__t or go blind in the midst of economic and technological chaos. I’m talking about what so many Americans need so frantically: what I had in Indianapolis before World War Two, and what the characters in Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ had.
In chapter 45 I proposed two amendments to the Constitution, here are two more, little enough to expect from life, one would think, like the Bill of Rights: Article XXX: Every person, upon reaching a statutory age of puberty, shall be declared an adult in a solemn public ritual, during which he or she must welcome his or her new responsibilities in the community, and their attendant dignities.
Article XXXI: Every effort shall be made to make every person feel that he or she will be sorely missed when he or she is gone.