Last week I went with friends to see the movie “Into The Woods” at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Afterwards, as we walked from our cars into a restaurant for dinner, one friend began making up her own silly lyrics to “No One Is Alone” a song from the musical. We laughed and sang made-up snippets for a few minutes. My contribution was “But I am alone! Regardless of your lyrics…We are ALL alone!” After we all chuckled at that, I surprised myself by launching into a bit of a tirade on the subject.
“That song’s a crock, anyway!”, I exclaimed. “The truth is, everyone is alone. Everyone. We are all alone. That’s the reality of the human condition.” But we were in happy moods, and my outburst came across as humorous and less bitter than it might under other circumstances.
We ate dinner, talking and laughing – just enjoying the company of good friends. Later, when our waitress sensed we were finished with our meals and preparing to leave, she stopped at our table to ask how we would like the bill. I indicated that it should be split, my friends’ charges were together, while mine were separate. As she walked away from our table, I sang softly, “I will pay separately because…I am alone!” We erupted into laughter again.
After dinner, my friends and I parted, returning to our own homes. I felt full of the good fortune that comes with friendship and laughter, fueled by tasty food and energizing conversation. But as I prepared for bed, my thoughts turned to more sober reflections on aloneness. Underneath the evening’s laughter, I rediscovered a core paradox:
We are, each of us alone…
…we are on our own when it comes to making the daily choices and decisions that define who we are – no matter how connected to others, only we can choose whether to be true to our deepest selves as we go about living each day; we can never truly know another person’s heart or mind, housed as we are in the solitude or our own, seeing with our own eyes through very personal filters; and (as I learned in existential philosophy courses in college) facing the end of our days – the great transformation known as death – is the ultimate solitary endeavor.
Yet we are, none of us, alone…
…we humans are built with a need for connection and community; we reach out in love and friendship toward others – we have families and tribes and neighbors; even when we are without direct interaction we have writers, artists, musicians whose work speaks to our hearts, whispering that we are understood; in moments of fear or despair, we often find unlooked-for hands reaching out to help or to soothe; and we have an internal urge to seek out an enlivening Spirit, sometimes known as God (which I learned in existential philosophy courses in college is a fallacious crutch, but which I have experienced as very real) a presence in our universe that accounts for countless moments of grace and giftedness is our lives.
That night, I dreamed a recurring dream I sometimes have.
In my dream, I have somehow come to be at the foot of a rocky wall of boulders and sheer cliff faces. On the plain atop the wall, is a place – and people – I need desperately to reach. The only way to get there, without miles of detouring on foot, is to climb. Even in my dreams, I have a healthy fear of heights. But there are many good hand- and foot-holds, my dreaming mind reasons, and I should be quite able to reach the top. And so I begin the arduous climb. As I pick my way upward, the climb seems to grow longer, becoming an endless upward path. Now that I am fully engaged, and more than partway up the scree, I have no choice but to continue climbing. My muscles fatigue, my body becomes weary and drenched with sweat. Just as my spirits flag and I begin to despair of reaching the top, I look up to see that I have finally progressed past the halfway point. This renews my energy, reminding me of the urgency of my quest. I climb with vigor, and feel myself equal to the task. However, in the first flush of self-congratulation, I look up a final time and see, to my sudden dismay, that the lip of the wall has extended out over the rocks I’m climbing.
I stop moving, clinging to my spot on the rocky slope, so close to my destination that I could touch the flat plain, except for the barrier that now extends over my head. I am flooded with disappointment, which quickly turns to despair. When I have dreamed this dream in the past, I have had to face the choice of climbing back down or of attempting a feat of physical prowess and strength that even my dreaming self knows is beyond me. Often, I wake at this point, my heart beating erratically and my breath labored.
But this night, something different transpires. As I cling there, scanning the rocky lip of the canyon, I notice a spot off to my right where the lip of smooth rock is broken. Under this spot are a couple of jagged rocks that, if I wedge my foot against them just right, might afford me the ability to reach the lip and haul myself up. Suddenly (and miraculously, as things sometimes happen in dreams) I remember that I have a bar towel in my back pocket. I remember a friend handing it to me in a flash of dream memory that hadn’t existed until that moment. I might, I reason, be able to fling the towel around some purchase at the top and use it to pull myself up the last bit. Though moving across the rock face is daunting, I now have a plan and my towel – so I face down my fears and scrabble sideways. Watching myself in the dream, I know it isn’t pretty as climbing goes. But it works, and I make it to the spot I have zeroed in on. Taking the towel from my back pocket, I look for some bit of rock or vegetation on the edge of the plain. Seeing none, I decide to blindly cast it up, an end in each hand like a very short jump rope. To my surprise, it catches! Relief sweeping through me, I lean away from the wall, my weight held by the towel, and pull myself up and onto the plain. The last thing I see before I wake from the dream is what the towel has caught on: not a rock or a stunted tree, as I had envisioned. But a human hand.
Lying in bed, the emotional residue of the dream floating in the atmosphere of my dark room, I realize the Truth embedded in my dream: we are all alone in our climb, but none of us makes it successfully to the top without grasping the hand of another. Looking back at my own darkest moments, the light that appears and offers both help and hope is always shining from the face of someone else. Whether that light comes in the form of a helping hand, an unlooked-for gift, or a simple card reminding me that I am loved, it shines with enough power to illuminate a way forward or, at the very least, a way to regroup before the next push.
And because it is true that I have needed the help of others to survive and thrive, that I have relied on the hands that have stretched out toward me, it is vitally important that I strive to sometimes be that hand for someone else. I may not be able to fix their problems. I may not think I have applicable skills to offer “real” (or concrete) help. But I can offer something, even if only a friendly presence, encouragement, emotional support. Or more simply stated: love.
And this paradox, I see, is the truth of the human condition (though I doubt anyone will ever learn it in an existential philosophy course in college): we may be alone, but no one need be alone. A simple, but powerful, truth.