United I/We Stand
In the middle of the night many years ago, I was awakened by a phone call from a friend, asking if I knew where our spouses were. They were supposed to have returned home from a get-together a couple of hours earlier. I didn’t get very concerned about it, and so I went back to sleep. But half-an-hour later, I woke up again, this time in a panic. What if my wife had been hurt – or even killed – in an automobile accident? The fear was overwhelming. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to begin to inquire directly into my emotion: “What am I so afraid of?” I asked myself. Lying in bed, asking myself this question over and over in my mind, the answer came out of “nowhere”: “I’m afraid of death.” Like many of us, I had carried this strongest of fears from a young age.
So, instead of shrinking away from the fear like I would have done habitually, this time, perhaps because of the deep inner work I had been doing for the previous ten years, I chose to question it: “Why am I so afraid of death? What is death, anyway?” This inquiry took considerably longer, but eventually, I realized that what I was really afraid of was being alone, existentially alone, all alone in the universe — forever. Now the fear intensified even more, and so I had no choice but to intensify my inquiry to meet it: “What IS this Aloneness?” I really dug into this questioning, with the full force of my being, sweating abundantly in the process of charting this unknown territory.
After a while, something opened in my consciousness and I experienced in a totally new way. I was ALL ALONE! And, paradoxically, in my aloneness (“all oneness”), I felt totally whole and complete, and connected to everything in the Universe. The next morning, as I was walking to work, I realized that I never had to be lonely again, because I could always be with myself in the Aloneness. Since that day, I have never again been lonely in the way I used to be.
From this experience, one of the things I have come to understand is that there is aloneness and there is Aloneness. When I am feeling whole in myself, I see and understand how the world is whole just as it is, with all its seeming contradictions and pain and suffering. In that state of mind, the world is always already united. I don’t have to do anything about it, to it, or for it. When I’m feeling separated and isolated – as A. E. Houseman put it, “Alone and afraid in a world I never made” – the world appears to me to be disjointed, fragmented and in turmoil.
Of course, I love it when I’m naturally feeling the openness and connectedness to all life. And, equally so, I hate when I’m feeling shut down, disconnected, and separate. Fortunately, I have discovered that if I sit quietly, curiously and patiently in the middle of the experience of being closed off to myself, eventually something will open – usually some pain, sadness, or fear that I wasn’t wanting to feel. And then, once I open to the feeling in myself, I once again feel open to and connected with all life. The world, once again, is unified.
I’m also blessed in my life to have a vocation as a psychotherapist and personal growth workshop facilitator that allows me to open to this interconnectedness. Tennessee Williams’ character Chance Wayne, at the end of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” turns to the audience and asks “just for your recognition of me in you.” When I’m really present with the person in front of me, whether a client, a friend, or a loved one, I see my self reflected back to me through this other person. And I know that that person is mirroring back to me things about myself that I accept or reject. I know that anything I feel towards any person other than love and compassion is a statement about myself – specifically, how I relate to that part of myself that is being shown to me by this other person. In this way, I have ongoing opportunities, on a daily basis, to heal (a word that shares its root with “whole”) those parts of myself that I have split off from. The good news is that we all have this opportunity, no matter what our work is in the world.
When I was young and foolish, I used to think I could save the world. Now that I’m older (and maybe more foolish), I know that I can only save myself, and that whoever enters into my life can take from me whatever they are willing to. I can only be with the person or people right in front of me. And if I’m really with that person or people, with the totality of my authentic being, I have created unity in my world, at least.
One does not create peace and unity by waging war – with oneself and/or others. There’s an ancient Confucian proverb that says (paraphrased), “To have unity in the world, one must first have unity in oneself, then in one’s family, then in one’s community, then in one’s state, then in one’s country, and finally in the world.” Unity begins right here in myself. When I am feeling whole in myself, I naturally create unity in the world, in everything I think, say and do. Peace and love radiate out from my being and spread in ever-widening circles, touching the lives of countless known and unknown beings.