We Are All Alone Together: An Existential Offering Of How To Be Ourselves In A World Of Others
Written by Natalie Fraser Coursework for The Existential Academy
"It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found." - Winnicott (1965)
It is perhaps one of the most anxiety provoking predicaments of human existence to be required to live both as an independent individual yet as part of a social world. This concept spans history and cultures and has influenced many great philosophers and practitioners.
In his extensive research on development, Winnicott (1965) explored the immense, anxiety inducing impact that others have on our own individualisation; our development a process of learning who we are through transference with others, then splitting into an individual who is ultimately alone... yet never totally.
"Ubuntu; I am because we are"
In the Xhosa culture Ubuntu refers to the concept that 'a person becomes a person through other persons’ (Lötter, 1997) and relates to a belief in the universal bond that connects all humanity. Jung's "collective unconscious" refers to the inherent gnostic knowledge shared universally by all human kind (Jung, 1936), while Buber spoke of human connection in his concepts of two ways of being in the world; the I-it and the I-You (Buber, 1970).
In the I-it mode of experience, objects are seen as a collection of qualities to be put to some purpose. In this mode the object is experienced at a particular point in time and is observed rather than actively participated in. In the I-You mode of encounter a relationship is created with the object, encountered in its entirety not for its specific qualities nor in a particular moment in time. This encounter between humans is most commonly described as love.
Yet once an I-You encounter is reflected upon, the You becomes an It, meaning that these I-You encounters are fleeting and leave a sense of yearning. Love, therefore, is a state wavering between encounters and experiences that leaves us anxious for something more.
"Whoever has learnt to be anxious in the right way, has learnt the ultimate"
- Kierkegaard (1844, p155.)
The term anxiety is a concept that has been discussed since ancient times predominately as a negative experience and increasingly as symptomatic of diagnosable mood disorders (Crocq, 2015). Defined by the DSM-5 as the anticipation of future threat; anxiety is considered a normal emotion (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Yet for existential thinkers, anxiety is far more than an emotion but rather the most universal and basic feature of human existence (May, 1950).
For centuries philosophers and existentialists have contributed towards the understanding of anxiety, presenting various descriptions and highlighting significant related themes which promote authentic and fulfilled living. Keirkegaad described anxiety as "the dizziness of freedom"(1980), the realisation of the vastness of our potential and a crucial tool to encourage us to be a true self. Understanding our true self is paradoxically the ultimate human desire yet the greatest cause of anxiety (Yalom, 1989). But in an existence so intrinsically connected with others, what does it mean to understand our true self?
"Hell is other people" - Sartre (1989)
In his play "No Exit" Sartre spoke of 'the gaze' by which he meant the conscious image of our self created by others (Sartre, 1989). This judgement he saw as a subordination of our self, turning us into a fixed object that deprives the true freedom of potential that humans possess to continually recreate their self. This potential is not just a freedom but a responsibility that all must uphold. When we love others in a way that relies on their image of ourselves to give us the security of our existence; when we embrace the judgement of others, we live inauthentically in Bad Faith (Sartre, 1948). For Sartre love was a project of understanding how others see us. Once we understand this and have the courage to question it, we can then choose our own interpretation. Without questioning the judgement of others we become hypnotized by their view, taking their words as a substitute for our own reality rather than creating our own (Joslyn, 1975).
For Stirner, being oneself was being the master of oneself (Stirner, 1995). When we become overly preoccupied with others we can put them on a pedestal, subordinating ourselves, enabling the other to master us. Our power is given to another when more importance is given to their views than our own, and often without them having asked or wished for it. Giving this power to another may alleviate anxiety, but denies an individual of their freedom and responsibility to create their own life (Yalom, 1989). While this all encompassing devotion may be perceived as a true and deep love, the reality of such an existence is one of restraint and inner-conflict. Continually striving to seek a true meaning yet having relinquished the tools of self-awareness and freedom required to do so creates a debilitating and inauthentic existence.
Buddhist teachings explain the concept of "Upeksha" relating to loving with equanimity, and means 'to look' 'over' (Hanh, 2006). Love is the ability to understand and accept the whole situation without being bound to certain aspects of it. True love, therefore, is not a possessive bond of dependence but a need-free relationship built on selfless caring. While we might ‘fall’ in love with others, what we do with that is completely up to us (Cleary, 2015) and it remains our responsibility as humans to create our own existence.
"We are condemned to freedom" - Sartre (1948)
In some cases, extreme connection with others can be the ultimate resource for our survival. Writing as a prisoner in Auschwitz, Frankl suggested that merely the memory of a loved one could give us enough meaning to face even the most traumatic and tragic struggles (Frankl, 1985). However, the distinction must be made between using others as a meaning and creating our own meaning. While there is no being in isolation "mitsein" Heidegger felt strongly that others should not be used as tools. Rather than being held by the duty others put on us, we must fulfil our own destiny (Heidegger, 1962).
As a means of understanding more clearly what influence others have on our existence, it may be useful to consider Nietzsche's concept of "eternal reoccurrence" (Nietzsche, 1974). This concept inspires the question that if one had to live their same life over and over again, how would they respond. Are we living every moment as if for all time? Are we striving for our greatest meaning or succumbing to the roles set for us by others?
All too often humans are prone to blaming others for their own emotions, actions and situations. While we can learnfrom others, when an individual accepts that they are condemned to the freedom of an existence that is not predetermined, they learn that they alone are ultimately responsible for themselves. For Tobin this responsibility is freedom in the choices we are able to make within the limitations of our existence (Tobin, 1975). However, this freedom can be inordinately difficult and scary to accept. Intellectual awareness of one's responsibility remains ineffectual until the emotional power is mastered to embrace it and create change. The challenge then continues in the innumerable choices available and the realisation that for every 'yes' there must be a 'no', each choice killing another option (Yalom, 1989).
"We are perfect altogether! For we are, every moment, all that we can be; and we never need be more" - Stirner (1995)
All the choices available to us come as possibilities formed in our imagination as fantasies, always in opposite pairs for every hope is opposed by a fear. When suspended between hope and fear one becomes scattered and disconnected with their true self, remedied only through acceptance. Hope represents a dissatisfaction with the present, revealing an element of self or situation which is not being fully accepted (Stevens, 1977). This dissatisfaction is a fundamental guide to existence, enabling the realisation of what can be changed for the self to be accepted.
Complete self-acceptance was for Stirner a fundamental feature of self-love, which he believed was the solution to overcoming all that prevented us from achieving our full potential. Beings are unique and constantly changing, a 'creative nothingness', and in being unique in each moment one can never be the same a second time. Individuals that accept their uniqueness rather than striving towards an ideal created by themselves or another will experience self-love (Stirner, 1995).
Self-love may also be represented in our choices, doing things we want to do rather than are obliged to do by others. This enables existence to become valuable through the interest and appreciation that each individual gives to it, rather than what value others give to it. Questioning the influence a relationship has on our existence is a fundamental aspect of understanding our true self. When self-awareness alerts us to the restrictive or obstructive nature of our relationship with another, we are responsible to use our self-governance to change the impact this relationship has on us, often requiring some form of separation.
While we may not want the processof separation from another, it may be necessary when the relationship obstructs our ability to achieve self-awareness and live as our authentic self. If true love is not attached nor possessive, built on selfless giving without reliance on receiving, then such relationships can remain. Our ultimate responsibility is to ourselves, and our choices must reflect that.
Initiating or experiencing separation changes may be incredibly challenging, but objects, including people, are only as valuable as we create them to be in our experience. Love is not intrinsic nor due to the objective features of another, and lasts only as long as the object is given value and interest. Once the interest is diverted, the value is lost. This powerful choice of value possessed by each individual and is an intrinsic resource for change. When a situation is fully accepted, this change will occur spontaneously (Stevens, 1977). While it may be a great challenge to let go of a person or situation, this may be demonstrative of how great the dependence is. The more painful the separation, the more necessary it is.
From a child moving away from their mother, to an adult moving away from their lover, Winnicott suggested that transitional objects are used throughout life to ease this separation (Winnicott, 1969). Diverting the interest from an individual who was a significant source of transference to a transitional object may replace the source of comfort found in the individual being transitioned away from. Yet as existence is ultimately a solitary experience, the strongest source of comfort must be found within ourselves.
“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” - Dalai Lama XIV (Lama and Cutler, 2009)
Heidegger's concept ofDasien refers to the authentic and primal experience of "being". Beyond conscious awareness of the world, Dasien is the never-ending process of understanding the external world through one's own personal world; the simple fact that we can only exist here and now, incorporating past present and future (Philipse, 1998).
When a being is not experiencing their personal present they become scattered; lost between hopes and fears, desiring change yet having relinquished the power to do so, being so attached to another that they have lost all connection with their self. Yet no matter how lost or despairing an individual becomes, in each moment all beings possess the ability to heal themselves by returning to their present; experiencing and accepting their whole self.
While a continuous state of 'wholeness' cannot be reached, achieving this on a moment-to-moment basis may be man's greatest task (Tolbin, 1975). Only through complete self-awareness and acceptance will an individual feel complete within themselves. Completeness brings a state of congruence within their being, dissolving inner conflict and their bindings to others. Completeness brings the authentic experience of emotions, positive and negative, and the ability to make decisions based on the instincts of the whole being rather than through logic, morality or feeling. Completeness accepts the responsibility to continually create a unique world and experiences enough self-love to bring the courage to do so.
When we experience our self as a complete whole, in that moment we realise that everything we seek from this world of others, we already possess within ourselves.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
Buber, M. (1970). I and thou (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York: Scribner.
Cleary, S. (2015). Existentialism and romantic love. Springer.
Crocq, M.-A. (2015). A history of anxiety: from Hippocrates to DSM. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(3), 319–325.
Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
Hanh, T. N. (2006). True love: A practice for awakening the heart. Shambhala Publications.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.
Joslyn, M. (1975). Figure/ground: Gestalt/Zen. JO Stevens. Moab, UT: Real People Press.
Jung, C. G. (1936). The concept of the collective unconscious. Collected works, 9(1), 42.
Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte.
Lama, D., & Cutler, H. (2009). The art of happiness in a troubled world. Harmony.
Lötter, H. 1997. Injustice, Violence and Crime: The Case of South Africa. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi B.V
May, R. (1996). The meaning of anxiety. WW Norton & Company.
Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 374, 336.
Nietzsche, F. W., Hollingdale, R. J., & Tanner, M. (1990). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. London, England: Penguin Books.
Philipse, H. (1998). Heidegger's philosophy of being: A critical interpretation. Princeton University Press.
Sartre, J. P. (1948). Existentialism and Humanism (1947). Philosophy: Key Texts, 115.
Sartre, J. P. (1989). No exit. No exit and three other plays, 1-47.
Stevens, J. O. (1977). Hypnosis, intention, wakefulness. Gestalt is, 258-269.
Stirner, M. (1995). Stirner: the ego and its own. Cambridge university press.
Tobin, S. A. (1975). Wholeness and self-support. Stevens, J.
Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The maturational processes and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development.
Winnicott, D. W. (1969). The use of an object. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 50, 711.
Yalom, I. (1989). Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Perennial Classics).