A few weeks ago, I had dinner with John, a friend of mine in California in his mid-60s who is grieving the loss of his wife from cancer. John was struggling to manage his grief, not an easy task at any time, and especially not during the social isolation of the pandemic. He told me he had recently spoken with a retired friend of his, who told him, “Life is a solo journey.”
“What do you think of that?” he asked me, knowing I research loneliness.
The words of John’s friend reminded me of what I used to tell people when I was a graduate student in my mid-20s: “We enter this world alone, and we will leave it alone.” Influenced by the trauma I experienced from my parent’s divorce and its aftermath, including a physically abusive
step-father, that statement made a lot of sense to me at the time.
I don’t believe it anymore.
Why? To explain how my view has changed, let’s first examine how we entered this world. Then, in the next part of this article, let’s consider how we will leave it.
How We Arrived Here
To subscribe to the belief that we entered this world alone is to forget one minor detail. We only exist in the first place thanks to the greatest sacrifice one human being can make for another: to birth them. Another human being has undergone untold physical, psychological and emotional duress, initially for nine months—replete with unprecedented levels of daily pain that anyone who has not gone through this process, including myself, cannot even begin to fathom—to accompany us on the first part of our journey.
These sacrifices don’t end when we are born. Consider this account from science writer Lydia Denworth in her book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond:
“Before he could have his [closest] friend Christian, my son Jake had to have me—and his father, and some loving babysitters—but, in his case, mostly me. He and I spent our days together. For the first few weeks, that meant that he lay on my chest in the living room of our London apartment … Later, after we moved back to Brooklyn, we dug in the sandbox of the playground, put puzzles together, and chatted … We spent our nights together too, or at least it felt like it in the early months when we were up every few hours, nursing and rocking … In each of these interactions, even the exhausted ones, when I smiled at Jake, and he eventually smiled back, when I talked to him, and he eventually talked back, when I laughed, and he eventually laughed back, and when I cried, and he stared at me and tried to work out what was going on with Mommy, he was honing the early social skills on which his later friendships would depend.”
I hope this puts to rest the idea that we come into this world alone.
“Not so fast, Mr. Jump-to-Conclusions Author,” you may be thinking. “My parents were not as doting and attentive as Jake’s; they taught me through their neglect and abandonment that life really is a solo journey.”
Hmmm. Let’s come back to what you have shared in a later part of this article after we consider whether we leave this world alone.
Is Life a Solo Journey?
In early December of last year, my wife, our kids, and I all had Covid-19. Not a fun experience. On my fourth day after testing positive, I remember thinking about how it would either improve or deteriorate in the next few days, as has been the pattern for so many. Ensconced in my twelve-hour-per-night-sleep-filled cognitive haze, I had to face my own mortality. I didn’t really know what would happen next.
A Covid-Induced Epiphany
I’d like to say that the following epiphany came to me in my few lucid waking hours while under the thrall of the virus, but that’s not what happened. It came to me a few weeks later as I felt an ineffable gratitude that we had all regained our health.
At this point, I experienced two realizations. First, that the two most important things in life are love and life itself. Second, that of these two, we can only take one with us when we go: the love we’ve shared with other people along the way.
I now understand at a much deeper level why, at our wedding twelve years ago in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, my wife and I engraved the back of the handcrafted diorama that we gave to all of our guests depicting a typical wedding scene—with the exception that, in true Mexican style, the bride, groom, and accompanying musician were all skeletons—with the words “El Amor es el Unico que es Eterno.”
These words mean, “Love is the Only Thing that is Eternal.” The rest, including life, is ephemeral.
A Difference between Love and Fear
In this sense, love is associated with gain. How does this come to be? When we express the love within us toward others and receive love from others, we gain this invisible yet highly coveted, critical resource that will extend beyond our brief time on this planet.
Fear, on the other hand, is always associated with the opposite of gain: loss. We fear what we may lose in our lives: material possessions, a friend, our health, and of course—a fear accentuated during this pandemic—life itself.
For this reason, people who exist in a state of fear do not tend to be very kind toward others. In this sense, fear is narcissistic—we haven’t received the love we feel we deserve in our lives, and so we become angry toward others; after all, they haven’t given us what we’ve needed from them. This is the carrying card of the narcissist: blaming others for what they haven’t received.
Love is About What You Give
People who live in a state of love, on the other hand, do not think very much about what they have or have not received from others. Instead, they are focused on what they can give to their relationships. In this sense, they are empowered: while others are cognitively paralyzed by their ruminations on what they didn’t receive, the thoughts of those who live with love revolve around how, how often, when, and what they can give to help others experience more happiness in this life. They are the living embodiment of the Italian expression “Ti voglio bene” (“I desire for your happiness.”)