Closeness and Intimacy
In 1946, existential psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, published a book which drastically altered the course of psychotherapy; he titled it Man’s Search For Meaning, and in it, he presented the case for making life-meaning as the touchstone for all clinical treatment plans. In essence, Frankl argued that having a sense of purpose was integral to well-being, stating that man needed meaning for psychological health and to keep himself alive. Several years later, Rollo May, another existential psychiatrist, published a book titled Man’s Search For Himself, in which he chronicled the average man’s daily life, surmising that his only sense of joy arrived in the brief moment of conversation with his love, which (coincidently) was his one, and only, moment of pure intimacy.
May’s understanding of loneliness and man’s isolation from himself, and the world around him, continues to make his book relevant today. In his assessment, May bore witness to a double isolation, leading to an almost unbearable sense of vacuity, for which our culture conveniently provides a plethora of unhealthy remedies, from reality television to narcotics; essentially, we’ve created ways to numb ourselves out in a multitude of forms. In our predominately unhappy lives, we’re missing purpose and a core sense of who we are, but, as significantly, we’re missing intimacy; hence, I think that there ought to be a third installation in this series that wasn’t meant to be a series, a book dealing with the worst epidemic in our lifetime: loneliness.
NPR recently conducted a series on loneliness (focusing on several forms of the extensive research that’s been done on the subject), which explored the affects of a sense of social isolation on individuals of nearly all age groups; the results were stunning. The authors discovered that the people who felt most alone, and most isolated, were millennials and the individuals who comprise Generation Z; the study found that the younger you were, the more likely you were to feel lonely. For the purpose of clarity, the sense of isolation and social isolation are different concepts, as one can feel alone while being in a group with others; and conversely, one can be socially isolated without feeling lonely. Personally, I’ve experienced loneliness in company many times, and the scary part is how common my experience is, especially among those in my age group.
Recently, in my attempts to branch out and form new friend groups, I became involved with several organizations, some were social, while others were political and professional; and, the major common theme among them was shallowness. No matter where I went, it seemed, I was faced with discourse on people’s favorite travel destinations, or their favorite foods: intimacy, that quality so necessary for a sense of connection and, subsequent, emotional well-being, was missing. It was all the same, regardless of which group I entered, no matter which part of town I visited; no one ever said anything of any significance. So, there I was, feeling isolated and alone, while yearning for a feature of life that seemed to have dissipated with the sands of time, an apparent relic of years past that my generation was clearly not entitled to.
The Lonely Crowd in the Age of Social Media
I often have conversations with my patients about their masks, the smiling personas which hide away their true selves, the ones who long to be seen and accepted. They’re convinced that the world would shun them if they knew of their disgrace, and the shame which (they believe) exemplify their true selves. And thus, they hide, as we all do, desperately seeking solace in the comfort of solitude, while pushing away the world around them. To me, this is the perfect representation of the alienated and isolated world in which we live. We do and say what’s expected, while our inner-selves claw away at the steel bars in which we enclose them. And I ask, what for? Why do we damage ourselves the way we do? Are we inherently masochistic, simply punishing ourselves for some unknown crime, perhaps for being human?
Today, I had a phenomenal breakthrough with a client of mine, one in which he realized the insignificance of how he was perceived by others. Rollo May once said:
Every human being must have a point at which he stands against the culture, where he says, “This is me and the world be damned!” Leaders have always been the ones to stand against the society — Socrates, Christ, Freud, all the way down the line.
And on this day, my patient was bestowed with that unique and perspective-altering revelation, gaining insight into the importance of accepting himself, while realizing that it was up to others to attempt to understand him, not his duty to make them. It was in that moment that I experienced a part of him which I wished others could perceive in themselves, hell, that I wished I could see in myself. I bore witness to a calmness that’s seldom replicated, and knew that I was a part of something special: a mystical reveling that rivaled that of the great St. Paul. In that one brief moment, it felt as though time had arrived at a permanent halt, as I experienced the vastness of eternity, a euphoria which entailed the authenticity which I was, humbly, granted the privilege of seeing.
I hoped that I could someday help my other clients share in, what was, a pivotal point in a life-long struggle for self-acceptance. And, I wished that I could someday share in it, too. I’ve argued elsewhere about how closed off we were from our world and each other, fearing judgment as we hid away the children within. We’ve been reared with this ugly belief that we have to be something or someone in order to be loved and accepted. I have to be good at this or that, we tell ourselves; I have to be polite and friendly; I have to be sane: all of which are myths that pervade a culture which deeply yearns for the divulgence of its soul, and yet relentlessly fears to do so.
For as long as clinical psychology has dominated the treatment of mental ailments, we’ve known of the deep tragedies of suppression, but it has never been more obvious than in today’s age of isolation: sad people with smiling faces, pretending to be happy. Rather than genuine, creative expression, we’ve become obsessed with taking selfies and gathering likes, convinced that both could fill the voids which beg for human connection. And, we’ve successfully perpetuated a culture of small-talk and social media, deluding ourselves into believing that they can provide some semblance of the depth all of us seek. So, where does all of this leave us? Still searching for intimacy on a continuation of our collective quest, which can be conceived of as our purpose for being.
Intimacy is love, and love is only made possible through revelation; but, revelation requires courage, the boldness which says, I am who I am and to hell with you if you don’t accept me! It’s the fortitude stemming from the love of oneself, which can only be created by the one whom it’s directed to. And in that self-love, its creator asserts: I deserve it from those around me because I deserve it from myself; I am worthy and lovable because I am who I am, because I am me.
Yet, we’ve managed to create a culture of hallowed out individuals seeking companionship through emptiness, while remaining in denial of our flawed logic and our sheer terror of true connection. To connect is to be open, and to be open is to be known; but, nothing in this world frightens us more than revelation. So here we are, isolated and alone, if not in our bodies, then most certainly in our hearts. In his book, Rollo May profoundly remarked, “The “stuffed men” are bound to become more lonely no matter how much they “lean together”; for hollow people do not have a base from which to learn to love.” And that seems to be our collective destiny, at least until we overcome our collective fear of being known.
In my own search for intimacy, I long for a world where sadness, fear, and insecurity are easily expressed, where I can easily say, “See, this is who I am!” I want to rid myself of my mask and, like my client, I just want to make myself known, to say: to hell with you if you don’t like me.
“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.” -Rollo May