Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 19, 2017
From Kafka to the Existentialists, alienation and isolation have been central tenets of modern life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, everyone experiences “the same condition of infinite remoteness.” But is that really true? The facts suggest otherwise. We are all wrapped up in and connected by togetherness, and our remoteness is mostly an aberration, an artifact of the peculiar way we apprehend the universe.
One can understand the sense of aloneness, the impression that the self—our individual feelings and understanding—is all that can really be proved to exist. After all, we see the world as unique individuals, through the portals of our senses, the streams of light and vibrations of sound playing out on our singular brains. Nothing else registers with the same impact and immediacy.
Children often imagine that they are not only the stars but the only real people of their life dramas, and everyone else fades away when they leave the stage. There is even a name for it: infant solipsism. But eventually they outgrow that misconception. As adults, we know that we are so much more alike than apart.
Sadly, with all the worldly travails, the corrosive politics, the hate-filled rants, the frequency of shootings and warfare, the news media’s focus on death and destruction, it might not seem that way. Even the classic stance of the cell phone user, head down, eyes locked, oblivious to surroundings, suggests a posture and attitude more reclusive than connective.
But it is possible to demonstrate the opposite. Imagine a bevy of Martians beaming down for their first foray with Earthlings. Only instead of landing at, say, the new Fountain Square, and heading to the nearest coffee shop for a whipped-cream-topped, honey-flavored, extra-foamy latte (impossible to find on the Red Planet), they prefer to examine us from overhead, hovering invisibly just a few yards off the ground. At that remove, what would they make of our species?
Mostly that we are alike. Sure, our hair and skin color may be different, and our gender identities and personalities vary along a fairly narrow range. But when it comes to basics, we might as well be one. After all, we stand, walk, talk, laugh, sing, play, and act almost identically. We empathize with the sufferings of others. We love our children and detest pain and privation.
Our universal bonds are not only intuitive but scientifically sound. Researchers at Cambridge University have uncovered DNA evidence that suggests all modern humans have a common ancestry.
And modern religions tell the same story. “God willed to create all men out of one,” wrote St. Augustine, “in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind, but also by bond of kindred.”
It is true that we are born and die alone, and spend a good deal of our lives feeling apart from others, Emerson’s “infinite remoteness.” But we are always alone together.