Watching online a new television drama Manhattan, a story about the famous atomic bomb research program led by J. Robert Oppenheimer between 1942–45 that gathered US best scientists together to produce the nuclear weapon to fight the Nazi Germany, while holding a glass of affordable French Merlot (a type of red wine from France; known as the second most popular red grape in America after Cabernet Sauvignon) I bought this afternoon from the “foreign goods” section of Walmart here in Shanghai last night, I was finding myself in a strange place as well as state of mind.
I made sure that the only light in the room came from the 12-inch screen of my laptop, and the only source of sound also came from the speaker of the same laptop. By doing so, I felt as though my mind was being dictated by whatever stories, narratives, and conversations that were being released frame-by-frame, and word-by-word, from this little electronic source. I managed, first of all, to have all the light in my room turned off while writing this paragraph in order to simulate an atmosphere of being home, alone, with myself, but I have to admit that I was kind of liking it. It was the kind of loneliness that was not simply empty. It was the feeling of being without companions that empowered me with the sense of independence and individual agency, reminding that I needed to please no one and that I was in control. At the climax of the two episodes of Manhattan that I had time to watch last night (will continue to watch the rest tonight), I was suddenly reminded of Jean-Paul Sarte’s words which simply came to me without any lead:
Everything that exists is born for no reason, carries on living through weakness, and dies by accident.
We all born with no fixed purpose, says Sarte, and to come to “be” we must first exist, and in order to exist we need to make sense of it. This quote isn’t as pessimictic as it might sound. He simply urges us to get away from the false belief that there is a set of value that we are born with and born into, thus we have to love our life the way it wants rather than the way you want. Weaknesses are what we all share. We are strong, but it is never our strength that enables us to see the true color of life. It is, instead, the weaknesses, in what we are fearful of for no reason to, in what we strive to achieve and we don’t know why, and in the act that we try perform so well but eventually for no reason and no one, that drag us through life. Realizing that there is no fixed purpose in life and that we are all weak, we then strive to exist, in which case when we die by accident we wouldn’t be feeling as bad. When Sarte, the father of existentialism, wrote the above passage, I believe that what he meant may have to do with the absurdity of how all of us have the tendency to prescribe our own judgments on things. For instance, Loneliness is bad, but having a lot of friends is good; being alone is bad, but being married to someone is good; believing in God because there’s no otherwise way to believe how things pre-exist in the world is bad, but believing that God exists because he exists is good, and so on. Sarte did not see this way of thinking as being productive. Many philosophers have urged us, through a wide variety of rhetorics, to sidestep from engaging in loneliness. The most optimistic of them all is the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, who believes that friendship is the most important element of humankind; thus, we should all be living in a commune as friends who care about each other, diminishing the moment of loneliness (and yes, I am quite sure that I am simplifying Epicurean thoughts by a large margin here, but I believe that it serves the purpose of this post for the time being). On the other side of the spectrum, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) may be the most pessimistic of all of them (and I have written about him also in my earlier post). That said, he is not all pessimistic about our relationship with loneliness, as he writes:
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
In fact, if we take down all of these general facades of judgmental assumptions that we have about certain things, loneliness is not necessarily a bad thing. An act of writing, for instance, can only be done when you are alone, having a dialogue with yourself. In my post On Time, I wrote about how I’d rather be alone than be in company with a person with bad faith. In a way, perhaps we should look at loneliness existentially. In an essay,“Abiding Loneliness: An Existential Perspective On Loneliness,” the medical ethicist and philosopher Michele A. Carter writes:
Many portray the existential form of loneliness as an unavoidable condition of our humanity, residing in the innermost being of the self and expanding as each individual becomes aware of and confronts the ultimate experiences of life: change, upheaval, tragedy, joy, the passage of time, and death. Loneliness in this sense is not the same as suffering the loss of a loved one, or a perceived lack of a sense of wholeness or integrity. Further, it is not the unhealthy psychological defense against the threat of being alone, especially if being alone means we must confront the critical questions of life and death. Rather, existential loneliness is a way of being in the world, a way of grasping for and confronting one’s own subjective truth. It is the experience of discovering one’s own questions regarding human existence, and of confronting the sheer contingencies of the human condition.
That is, one very important thing that Sarte’s fellow existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche has taught us is precisely that: Jealously might not be all bad (if it leads to us wanting to become a better person), and loving your neighbors without questioning their intention (whether or not they would want to love your back) might be the stupidest thing you could do to yourself. The same goes with loneliness, as Nietzsche sees it, loneliness forces us to make a decision.
Loneliness is something I often do not think about because I am often too busy to be lonely. No kidding. When I am busy with what I am interested in working on, I don’t really have the time to spend on musing over my emotional independence. So, maybe, hypothetically-speaking, the reason why I have been so hard on myself is because I don’t want to leave time for loneliness. I know that the best cure for loneliness is to be busy. And if this could be the case for me, it could also be the case for many. I have a feeling that there must be an evidence from neurosciences that proves my point about how much data our brain can operate, and how much emotional baggage it can cope with at one time. If there were too many things on its plate (yes, I am using this metaphor with the brain; apologies if it’d remind you of a brain on plate depicted in the movie Hannibal) the feeling of loneliness won’t find form, and that’s how, so far in my life, I’d like to believe it.When my father passed away in 2010, what saved us from the absolute despair was precisely the fact that we really had no time to think about the fact that he was no longer alive. Our family were insanely busy during the first two weeks after he passed organizing all kinds of things, i.e., funeral-related events, both to ritualistically send him off to the other side , and to properly honor his illustrious, though short, life. It was my first week of class and I rushed back from the US, flying across the Pacific to Bangkok the day after I heard the news (I also wrote about this in the post On Death) to be with my family for two weeks. Although I was in the complete state of despair, I believe that I was able to get through it not so painfully because the whole two weeks in Bangkok left me with literally no time to extent my grievances beyond the realm of pragmatism. Simply put, my dad was already dead, and the idea of him not being able to speak to me again left me vulnerable to all kinds of possible ideas regarding the origins of the collateral sadness that could shape my sense of being.
Some of those could have shaped me to believe that it was my very own fault to never want to adequately spend time with my father that we didn’t get to know each other as well as we should. In fact, as someone who has studied suicide, I have learned that many people who decide to seek a permanent solution to, often, a temporary problem, do so because they, as I’d like to put it, “have too much time in hand and thus let their mind wander too far outside of the realm of pragmatism.” What’s pragmatic is whatever works, and usually, if not always, suicide doesn’t work, and most of us know that in our heart but many of us still want to walk toward that destination because we, simply put, “have too much time in our hand.” During those ten days, my mother was busy from 5am in the morning all the way to midnight. My older brother was also extremely busy helping not only with the funeral, but also planning for the publication honoring our father (It’s customary to have a book about the life of the diseased to give to the guests at the funeral. Since his death was unexpected, we had nothing prepared for so we had to work really hard to put it together). So, during the day, we would be flipping through hundreds of his photo albums, personal diaries and documents, and his personal collections of objects, looking for photos, artifacts, ideas, his quotes, and so on, to put in this publication. The most tiring part, needless to say, was the funeral itself. In the heat of Bangkok’s rainy season (which felt like summer elsewhere), the rituals began in the early morning (5pm) when all of us would be offering food to the monks. Then we would be spending the rest of the morning on the publication. The funeral-related activities would begin again after lunch when we would be preparing to head to the temple. We’d be putting on our black clothes and head to the temple to receive the guests who would be traveling from all over the country to pay respect to my father’s body. Those were ten days of that proved that I had both the physical and mental strengths to deal with whatever challenges I would be facing for the rest of my life.According to the Theravada Buddhist ritualistic protocol, a funeral of a Theravada Buddhist believer like my father had to be held ten days in a roll. During the ten days, we had to devote the entire afternoon all the way to the early evening of each day to letting those who knew my father pay respect to his body. The funeral was held at a small pavilion of a temple nearby. All of us had to be there from late afternoon all the way until the evening. It was good in the sense that I got to see all of my father’s friends, old colleagues, relatives, and so on, who I had not seen for ages; and they all came with great stories about my father to share with me. Everyday my mother and I were busy greeting the guests and making sure that the place was clean after the monks came to perform a funeral prayer every night around 9pm. We would be deadly tired every night, and would still head over to a restaurant to eat (during which I’d always get a cold iced beer to go with super tasty and spicy meal) and chatted about things (mostly about the funeral and my father) until late before we eventually headed home preparing to get up again a few hours later for another day of the same rituals.
This is reason why I keep myself busy.
To avoid being lonely, I do things that I like to spend my time engaging with, and doing things that I feel they matter to me and my personal development, to others, with or without a prospect of an immediate return of profits (whether that be mental, emotional, professional, or financial). From time to time, especially when I watch an American television series, I would think about my life back in the US. The latest I could think about was back in 2013 when I was about to finish my residency at Harvard as a doctoral student and move to Shanghai. That year, I was not only a student at Harvard, but also a residential adviser at a fraternity house at MIT. I grabbed a bike from a bike-sharing stall in front of my fraternity house in the morning to bike to my office at Harvard, which was a few miles away. At the end of the same day, I would grab a bike from the closet bike-sharing stall, and get on whatever bike I could get there to bike back to my fraternity house. My life was very simple and straightforward (and probably not very exciting). But it’s a busy life. I did not have many friends then because I spent most of my time teaching (4 different courses in 4 different departments at Harvard), studying (Chinese and other subjects in preparation for my general exams), reading (all kinds of things to be up to date), and writing, so there were plenty of time that I could easily sink deeply into the abyss of loneliness. That said, it didn’t happen, and that was the most productive year of my life so far because I managed to keep myself away from loneliness by staying healthily busy. learn so much from that year. At least, it was the first year of my life that I managed to learn how to put things in their places, and put things in order. It was the first time that I managed to see through the underlying structure of my life: the fact that my life was meaningful because I was able to contribute to the society in which I lived by maintaining my ability to contribute to it, simply, by setting up the time to get up in the morning, making time for exercising (in which case, it was biking), and doing what I had to do to be able to want to learn more every day of my life.To end this post, I’d like to share with you a story. In fact, the original idea of this post is to write about (and therefore the original title of which) “four lonely lives,” but I guess I have gotten into too much tangent (as always) so I guess I won’t have the time to do it within this post. So, let me just write about one of the four.
Lonely Life Number One: This person was a young woman.
We got to know each other through work. We came in contact with each other because we happened to share a similar interest in a research topic. As much as I liked her as a person who was always full of energy, I was reluctant to get to know her because she — her existence — represented the embracing of all kinds of contradictions. For instance, she liked to say that she’s truly independent and thus no non-sense (e.g., “I don’t give a f*** when it comes to XXX” kind of attitude), but when our e-communication abruptly broke down (because of the lack of human touch of such form of communication) and I decided to no longer want to use e-communication as a means of our dialogue, she got really anxious. She was mentally concerned with how we were no longer “friends” on social media.
She liked to prove that she could “walk very fast,” and she showed me that which was true by intentionally walking so fast that even she herself needed to catch her breath from time to time while moving her physicality forward. Because of her intentionally fast-pace, she obviously could only focus on moving forward. On a peaceful sidewalk on which we were supposed to have a conversation about our shared interest, she decided to walk so fast so that we could not have a proper conversation. Walking fast was one thing, but when she arrived at an intersection where there’s not a single care moving, she would stop, stand still, until the dormant and passive traffic light tell her that she was then allow to cross the road. That is, to me at least, I felt as though she’s the kind of person who liked to prove that she could excel in the rubric, with which other people provided her, as opposed to create her own sensible rubric in which she would need to work hard to establish it as an acceptable category.
As independent as she may want to represent herself to be, not only did she obey, but also submit herself to the authority, without a clear idea regarding whether or not her perception toward the authority and its structure governing her individual capacity to act, think, and be rational (i.e., agency) is constructed. She would talk about how smart she thought she was with absolute confidence, but she would act in an excessively subservient manner (i.e., kowtow) to those whose superficial credentials, such as where they went to school or where they worked. She took cultural capital very seriously. She would say that she believed herself to be among the smartest people, but when it comes to conformity, she would conform without having even a slight urge to question the convention to which she was conforming.
I believe that she was a lonely person because she’s locating herself in between, what the French sociologist Émile Durkheim, calls “the dualisms of human nature” — one of which is structure, and the other is agency. According to Durkheim, we all live our lives struggling to be a part of this dualistic whole — we want to exercise our capacity to act (i.e., agency) while wanting to benefit from being a part of the structural whole. In a traditional society, it’s always been the structure that has more power than any of the agency, but in a modern society, in which most of us have access to new ideas, new thoughts, leading to various definitions of new forms of individualism, we tend to think that the structure could be subverted. This person whom I have been writing about wants to recognized as a special and unique individual as such by the structure which she’d like to claim that which had nothing to do with her sense of conformity. In other words, she liked to compete, but did not know what she was competing for. This kind of loneliness, I believe Durkheim would call, “insecurity loneliness.” This person got stuck in the middle of the dualisms. She wanted to be special and would like to conform to the idea that special-ness with which the society has provided, rather than define her own. By this, she could only share her “true thoughts” with a few people. She wanted to be accepted in the society, and wanted to have somewhere to fall back onto, but couldn’t because she had created an image of herself to be perceived by the rest of the society as “independent, intelligent, and, literally, fast pace.” What if one day there’s a moment of weakness in which she would rather want to be weak so that someone could say to her “I got your back?”
The answer I got was pretty clear: she would not show it, and would accept the fact that she’s a lonely person at heart because she had chosen to be stuck in between what she thought she wanted and what she really wanted. Sarte has reminded us that everything that exists, including life itself, “carries on living through weakness.” Why shouldn’t we openly accept that weakness? Why pretend to be someone else you are not? Here I want to also show my weakness. There’s no reason for me to appreciate someone with such a bad faith, but I did. I really liked her. Perhaps I am just too weak — too. But as Sarte points out, weakness is all we share.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree that there’s a sense of comfort in conformity, and that’s the reason why many of us choose to conform. I, too, conform, especially to my own sense of morality. There’s no way I would break it, because I always find comfort in it. But if you want to conform, don’t pretend as though you are not, because that would get you stuck between the dualisms — probably the loneliest place for a vulnerable human mind.