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.

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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.