Here is something I’ve discovered about myself — which is such a strange sentence: Who is it that discovers this something if not me? Anyway, here’s what I discovered: when too many people want a piece of me — friends, lovers, clients — I become unglued. The relentless dings of that god forsaken phone become my undoing, my drawing and quartering, each vibrate a burden of unfathomable weight crushing me.
And I get nasty as each request seems like a threat to my very existence — as if these innocent demands of my friends, lovers, even clients might tear me asunder, scattering my very atoms to the ether.
On the other hand, when I withdraw long enough from the social teem — which I often do —, I notice that my phone stops dinging and then a bit of panic settles in: Maybe I don’t exist?
Alas, negotiating the social is a perpetual endeavor. After all, the borders that separate you from me are porous from the get go. I am never wholly me and you are never wholly you. We are, quite literally, made of each other — physically, existentially, emotionally.
There is no pure individual per se: to be alive is to be connected to the world, to take in air and food and language and ideas. All my ideas, all my words, all my self pereception is informed at every turn by my history, my environment, my class, my experiences, my interactions with others. The point is this: if I am not really an individual, how am I — in Nietzsche’s words — to become myself?
In Fear and Trembling — a funny, smart, moving, and perhaps surprisingly readable little book —, Kierkegaard considers Abraham and Isaac. What blows Kierkegaard away, what confounds him no end, is Abraham’s reaction to the whole business of being asked to kill his only son (the “only” seems redundant, doesn’t it? I mean, if he had six sons, would it make it any easier?).
Abraham doesn’t blink. He doesn’t whine or question. And, above all, he doesn’t talk to anyone else about it, including his wife, Sarah. How could he? She, and everyone else, would have no choice but to consider him insane, a would-be murderer. This, then, is God’s test: Will Abraham take leave of the social, of the ethical, of all things that tether him to his place in this world? Will he be an individual, alone on the mountain top, not just willing to do this terrible act but affirming this terrible act — this absurd act?
Kierkegaard — or, rather, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio — declares over and over again: either Abraham is a nut job, a murderer, a loon — or the father of faith.
And hence Kierkegaard’s definition of faith: we have faith not despite the absurd but on the strength of the absurd. Reagardless of the inane, demented ramblings of the so-called religious in this country, faith does not bind us. On the contrary, faith bypasses the social, giving the individual a direct relationship with the universal.
All my social forays will not afford me a glimpse of — not to mention participation with— the universal. What do I mean by “universal”? Well, I’m not talking about a universal truth or god. I am talking about participating in the infinity of becoming, that surge of the cosmos that sweeps us up, that surges through us and with us. (While this may happen with another person, it is not something someone else does for you.)
This may seem like an oxymoron: to be myself, to be an individual, I must join the becoming of the cosmos. But it only seems like an oxymoron because we tend to think in terms of dichotomies: either I’m an individual or I’m connected. When the fact is I am always already both and neither.
None of this is to disparage or belittle the social. That would be silly. But it is to suggest that the social does not suffice. That to look for confirmation of who I am from others leads to pervasive neuroses, to jealousy, insecurity, resentment.
Now, solitude need not happen only when one is alone. It is something you can carry with you everywhere. And this is what really amazes Kierkegaard: Abraham comes down from Mt. Moriah and joins the social once again. He does not go to the desert alone to meditate or flee. He does not take a vow of silence and live in a monastery. No, he remains silent about what he did on the mountain but talks the language of the social everyday with those around him.
Abraham is what Kierkegaard calls a knight of faith, having a direct relationship to the universal while participating in the social. With each step he takes, he walks into the infinite and back. He does not identify himself with being a web designer, a lawyer, a chef — although he may love being one. He affirms himself amidst the fray not as this or that person but as an exquisite absurdity, as something that makes no sense, this is not identifiable in conventional terms, as someone extraordinary, someone that can leave the social behind — and yet who lives joyfully in the social!
This, I believe, is the trick to it all — to becoming oneself as well as to helping create a more livable social world: to carry solitude with me all the time whether I am cloistered in my odd little house, lying in bed next to a woman, or walking amidst the droves on Market Street.
Of course, learning to carry this solitude may take some actual solitude. It may take developing the fortitude of being alone, of not having the distraction of social drama, of defining oneself and one’s time by whether she likes you or he’s available to hang out. It may take learning to actually enjoy yourself, alone and profoundly. It may take a certain wallowing in oneself, in one’s weft and stench. But being alone is not the same as carrying one’s solitude. To affirm oneself absolutely as this way of going is a continuous internal movement. Alas, living alone will not suffice.
To enjoy solitude is not to flee the social but to live more thoroughly with the social as an individual, to feel less threatened by its demands and requests. And perhaps even be a better citizen for it as, hopefully, I won’t live and die by the fickle crowd and can hence be more generous. It’s not a matter, then, of either being alone or being social. It’s a matter of how best to live with the world.