The Isolated Self Is Not Real

The isolated self is not real, but the fearful mind makes it feel real. We always exist in interrelationship with others, with the world, and with a shared sense of our humanity. This greater reality of connection and being is what monotheists refer to as God, what Buddhists refer to as Emptiness, what Taoists refer to as the Tao, etc; but even atheists can intuit something beyond atomistic individualism, be it Nature or Gaia or something similar, the world as alive or vital, maybe simply the human warmth of family, friends, and community. In the below quoted piece, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt is discussed in her views on loneliness and totalitarianism. Maybe she is referring to how ideologies (political, economic, or religious) can fill that void and that is what transforms mundane authoritarianism into totalitarianism. The loneliness arises when we are fearful and anxious, desperate and vulnerable. We become open to anyone who will offer us a sense of meaning and purpose. We get pulled in and lose our bearings.

That is what ideologies can do in telling us a story and that is why media can have such power in controlling the rhetorical framing of narrative. I might take Arendt’s thought a step further. She argues that loneliness paralyzes us and that is true, but loneliness also is intolerable and eventually forces us to action, even if destructive action, be it riot or suicide. In loneliness, we often attack others around us who could remind us that we are not alone. The fear of isolation, a terrifying experience for a social creature like humans, can cause the imagination to run rampant and become overtaken by nightmares. In loneliness, we are socially blind and forget our own larger sense of humanity. Under such perverse conditions, ideological beliefs and principles can feel like a protection, an anchoring in dark waters, but in reality we end up pushing away what might save us, finding ourselves further adrift from the shore. We can only discover our own humanity in others, never in isolation. This is what can transform harmful isolation into healthy solitude, learning to relate well to ourselves.

Learn to listen to emotions. A feeling is never merely feeling. It speaks to the state of our soul. It not only indicates our place in reality but touches upon that reality. If we allow ourselves to be present, we can begin to sense something deeper, somether greater. We are more than we’ve been told. Your emotions will also tell you what is true, what is genuine — that is once you’ve learned to listen. If when or after being exposed to media you feel fearful and anxious or feel isolated and lonely, take note and pay attention to what ideological narrative was being fed to you that brought you to this state. Or else follow the lines of thought back into the tape loops playing in your mind and ask yourself where they came from. Why do these thoughts of isolation keep repeating and why have they taken such powerful hold in your mind? Remember, only in false isolation can we think of ourselves as powerless, as victms, but in reality we are never in isolation. If your ideology makes you feel in conflict wth friends, neighbors, and loved ones, it is the ideoloogy that is the danger, not those other people. The same is true for everyone else as well, but you must begin with yourself, the plank in your own eye.

* * *

The Book on Marx That Arendt Never Finished
by Geoffrey Wildanger

The Modern Challenge to Tradition begins where Origins ends, with an essay titled “Ideology and Terror” (1953). In the chapter of the same title concluding Origins, she had made one of her most controversial claims, “that loneliness, once a borderline experience . . . has become an everyday experience of the ever growing masses of our century.” Her critics easily believe in the prevalence of loneliness, but they often challenge the apparently causal relation she proposes between it and totalitarian states. The later essay included in The Modern Challenge responds to her critics and revises aspects of her argument that had been genuinely unclear. Arendt maintains the centrality of loneliness to totalitarianism, but more clearly grounds it not in an existential cause—say, anomie, that keyword of the social theory of Emile Durkheim—but in a political one: terror. Loneliness is not the cause of totalitarianism, she claims, but terror produces loneliness. Once a population is lonely, totalitarian governments will find it far easier to govern, for lonely people find it hard to join together, lacking the strong extra-familial bonds necessary to organize rebellions. These individualizing effects of loneliness prevent political action even in non-totalitarian states, because politics requires collaboration and mutuality. In this regard, Arendt claims a role for emotions in politics.

Contrary to loneliness, she argues that solitude can be a boon to politics. While loneliness “is closely associated with uprootedness and superfluousness . . . to have no place in the world, recognize and guaranteed by others,” solitude is the exact opposite. It “requires being alone,” but “loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.” She often quotes a line from Cicero, originally attributed to Cato, to describe the difference: “‘Never was he less alone than when he was alone’ (numquam minus solum esse quam cum solus esset).” Yet, Arendt writes, solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self.” She concludes,

what makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of [one’s] equals. In [loneliness], man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.

18 thoughts on “The Isolated Self Is Not Real

  1. Nicely put. We could make a better world if people could take these messages to heart. One difficulty of course is that it is difficult to feel the reality of oneness. We feel so alone. Perhaps a better society would change this. Where dog refuses to eat dog.

    • There are ways to feel the reality of oneness. And there are ways of feeling the opposite. These ways are well understood. some of them being traditional practices. It’s our stressed-out and media-drenched lives that contribute to this ungrounded disconnection and loneliness. We know the source of the problem, but we are addicted to it and identified with it.

      To counteact this, ignore the coroprate media and be extremely selective about what you allow into your personal space and your headspace. Also, be careful about social media, maybe get off of it entirely, and don’t be constantly looking at your devices. Instead, pray, meditate and be out in nature; go for walks, exercise and play sports; be around family and friends.

      Like most others, I struggle with this myself. I’ve mostly abandoned social media, although it occasionally draws me back, as I still have family that uses Facebook. I’ve even sought to restrict Youtube because of how it passively puts other people’s voices into my head, and I avoid talk radio for the same reason. I’m trying to not look at the corporate media, but this one is the hardest since it is everywhere.

      I’m getting better at this. The trick is to resist the initial urge. Once I’m pulled into reading one news article, I’m almost guaranteed to read many others. The corporate media is designed to entice you to keep reading with links to yet more articles that catch your curiosity or your outrage. Youtube is the same with one video just leading to another for hours on end, until I realize most of a day has gone by. I have to be strict about not even getting started.

        • The fundamental issue is probably addiction. Johann Hari argues that the addict is the ultimate inivididual. The reasoning is that addiction replaces relationships, where one’s connection to the addiction itself fills the void but simultaneously enforces the void in how addictions further destroy relationships.

          This isn’t only about addiction to drugs for the potential addictions in the modern world are numerous: media and media devices, work and constant busyness, sugar and caffeine, etc. We are afraid to have a single moment where we aren’t distracted and numbed or buzzing on stimulants and cortisol for uncomfortable feelings might arise. Addiction has become the norm in the US that most Americans don’t know any other way of being at this point.

          I’m on a low-carb diet right now because of my lifelong sugar addiction. I’ve also been spending longer periods off of caffeine. I’ve become acutely sensitive to my personal addictions and highly attuned to the addictions in others. The more distance I gain from addiction the more I realize that even mild addictions aren’t really harmless. I sense how they keep me agitated and anxious, especially addiction to news media and social media.

        • I’ve become more aware of the small choices I make and how they really aren’t small. I’m more likely to stop and think before acting or reacting mindlessly.

          An example of this is choosing what to click on. I know people who are always sharing news articles and videos with me. When on automatic, I’d simply click on them and be drawn in before I knew it.

          That is what I’m trying to change. Pause, take a breath, and ask oneself, Is this something I really want to expose myself to? Is it going to put me in a better mood or worse mood?

          It can be so difficult, though. I’m a person of immense curiosity and so there is a natural impulse to want to know what is going on in the world. But I’ve learned most things going on in the world, as filtered through media, aren’t worth my time.

          It’s a very difficult lesson to learn and incorporate. I’m trying to make that not clicking on things into a habit as mindless as has been clicking. That way, clicking will be the exception that I make as a conscious decision.

          • I am going through a similar process. I have never been a news junkie and have always loathed social media but am increasingly “aware” of life generally and my behviour in particular. I think I have worked out what matters in life and the answer is “very little”. Other than decency and good behaviour.

      • Quoting Johann Hari undermines your recent article. Perhaps you are unaware but he is a notorious crank and plagiarist. He has also been dishonest and deceptive in his attempt to silence critics. Since he writes for The Guardian, he is the “corporate media” you complain about. For beter writers on mental health and addiction, see Andrew Solomon, David Smail, Gabor Maté, Ben Goldacre, Rik Loose, Michael Pollan, Robert Whitaker.

        • You’re welcome to that opinion, but I partly disagree. I’ve read about Hari’s past and his change of heart seems sincere. I generally trust my judgment of the moral character of others, although that can be hard without meeting someone in person. He has been doing high quality work for years now. I judge it by the standards I’d judge any other writings and my standards are quite high.

          Still, I take your criticisms seriously, even though I don’t see it as undermining my own arguments. As far as I know the problems with plargiarism and critics was from almost a decade ago. However, if he has recently done wrong, I’ll reassess my opinion of him. I only know of him through his writings that seem well-researched, honest, and heartfelt. Is there another side to him that I’m not seeing? If so, I’m open to changing my mind.

          As for corporate media, that is an issue. Then again, many alternative thinkers have had pieces published in coporate media. Sadly, if someone wants to reach an audience, one is forced to turn to corporate media that is 90% of the media that Americans see. This is why Jimmy Dore goes on Fox News, not because he agrees with and supports Fox News. What matter is whether one can bring an alternative view to corporate media. Some succeed at that while others fail.

          As for your last point, I agree there are other good writers out there. And I’m always happy when someone lists the names of worthy public intellectuals in a particular area. So, thanks for sharing. I must admit my knowledge about this topic is limited. I’m somewhat familiar with a few of those you mention (Maté, Pollan, Whitaker, and Solomon), but most of the others I know nothing about. There are always too many books to read.

          If you have other info and views to contribute, please share. This blog is meant as a platform for open dialogue. My posts aren’t considered to be the final word on anything. They are just my sharing thoughts.

        • By the way, I didn’t actually quote Hari. I was trying to remember where he came up. At first, I thought you were referring to the post, but then I realized you meant my comment above. All I did was briefly mention his name once in passing.

          He wasn’t quoted or even given much space. He simply had one idea that I particularly agree with, that the addict is the ultimate individual. It’s an insight that I hadn’t come across before in the way he explains it, though I’d imagine others have come to similar conclusions.

          Hari’s views on power also resonate with those of William S. Burroughs own take on addiction. Burroughs had some intriguing views, but like Hari some people hate him. He had more than a small element of darkness in him. He accidentally shot his wife and it seems to distorted his psyche.

          There are a lot of mesed up people in the world. Sometimes, it is those who have had personal issues who have gained a certain kind of insight, understanding, and empathy. I take what I can from wherever I can find it. I’m a gleaner. Sometimes gold is found sifting through the mud.

          • I used to try and get certain friends off drugs, and always found I could rouse the sleeping snapping turtle inside an otherwise easy-going Bohemian. This was back when I inhaled the words of men like Gabor Mate, but after repeated trial and error I stopped badgering folks. Now I swear by another chronicler of the gutter–“Just cause you use hard drugs, why does that gie every Happy Pal the right to dissect an analyze ye?”

            I mean, speaking as someone who makes attempts at spiritual practice according to the diamond standard, why should the whole world become Buddhist ? Isn’t that a little fanatical?

            I don’t want to be that guy but. Christopher Lasch wrote the jeremiad and psychoanalysis that “affirms the principle” of American character that might restore our sanity in some way besides our mean and military pursuits. But good luck selling copy that begs a bougie American audience to pour over old tomes.

          • I’ve never tried to get anyone off drugs. In fact, I have nothing against drugs. But maybe that is because my main experence is with non-addictve psychedelics, although I did briefly smoke cigarettes, long enough to feel the addiction kicking in. Among the people I’ve personally known with addiction, their problem tends to be with alcoholism. Even marijuana doesn’t seem to be as problematic as alcohol.

            Even then, I have no desire to berate people about their addictions. That is something that irritates me, actually, former addicts getting high and mighty. I had a coworker who gave up smoking and then would complain about people who smoked. I never understood that. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest when people smoke around me or drink around me or whatever. Sure, addictions can be self-destructive, but it’s none of my business.

            My views on addiction are more about the culture of addiction, not so much the personal blame game. What makes addiction so harmful is the social context that creates such bad consequences. In countries that have legalized drug use, addiction rates do go down but, nonetheless, those who remain addicted are more able to lead fully functional and satisfying lives. It’s the judgment of addiction that is part of a culture of addiction.

            The self-righteous are as much part of the culture of addiction as are the addicts. That is because addiction has to do with the disconnection and isolation related to an unhealthy form of shame, particularly where there is a lack of culture of trust. My criticisms are of this kind of society, not the addicts who are the victims born into it and shaped by it. But we all are part of this society and so responsible for it.

      • Addiction in terms of drugs means some kind of pleasure that erases life is involved. I don’t get that feeling from soc media, and I don’t think you meant it that way.

        I remember your posts about the New Thought movement and the observed results of making inner feelings the standard of truth; seeking a total abolition of the self sounds too much like the advice of the lady therapist in I Heart Huckabees who advises her clients to smack themselves in the head with exercise balls.

        • Actually, I don’t see pleasure as the mainspring of addiction. There is desire involved, the compulsion into which one is immersed. Addiction replaces relationship and, as such, it’s an attempt to escape the isolated self, though it ultimately further isolates. Obsession-compulsion is the broader phenomenon in question.

          Additction seeks the abolition of the self. That isn’t the same thing as feeling a larger sense of identity, belonging, and grounding. It’s the isolated self that creates the desire for an abolition of self. But the isolation and abolition are part of the same movement. It’s hard to see this from within a culture of addiction.

    • Below is something that might be of interest. About isolation, disconnection and loneliness, there also appears to be a new kind of estrangement emerging within families. In general, it seems identity is becoming increasingly atomistic and insular, which is exacerbated by a narrow psychological perspective that excludes larger identities.

      “However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes. Estranged parents often tell me that their adult child is rewriting the history of their childhood, accusing them of things they didn’t do, and/or failing to acknowledge the ways in which the parent demonstrated their love and commitment. Adult children frequently say the parent is gaslighting them by not acknowledging the harm they caused or are still causing, failing to respect their boundaries, and/or being unwilling to accept the adult child’s requirements for a healthy relationship.

      “Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

      “The historian Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, made a similar observation in an email: “Families in the past fought over tangible resources—land, inheritances, family property. They still do, but all this is aggravated and intensified by a mindset that does seem to be distinctive to our time. Our conflicts are often psychological rather than material—and therefore even harder to resolve.”

      “In The Marriage-Go-Round, the Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin wrote that starting in the late 19th century, traditional sources of identity such as class, religion, and community slowly began to be replaced with an emphasis on personal growth and happiness. By the second half of the 20th century, American families had gone through changes that, Cherlin said, were “unlike anything that previous generations of Americans have ever seen.”

      “Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve that happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.”

  2. A little off topic maybe, but there’s a cute channel that makes fun science videos called kurzgsagt, anyway in one of their videos they mention how the universe is expanding at a exponential rate, so that galaxies are drifting away from each other at speeds we cannot hope to match.

    Now come to the general trend of humanity becoming more fractured or “individualistic” over time , from the close tightly knit tribal relationships to the modern radically autonomous “individual”, one can see how humans might seem like planets drifting away from each other at an exponential rate, lost to dwell in the void alone, no light to spin around like the sun, to illuminate our lonely hearts condemned to suffer, other than God.

  3. Our society is one in which it seems the vast majority of us can’t stand to be alone a single minute of the day to the point that many of us are wearing accessorial earpieces to keep an “always on” connection with co-workers, friends and/or family.

    Have we lost or forgotten our capacity to appreciate the wonders of solitude?

    I probably shouldn’t admit it, but the only times in my entire life I’ve ever felt lonely actually has been in the company of other human beings.

    Nice post.

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