Gotta Keep Bars In Between Us


The other day I was sitting at my desk, idly Googling “loneliness human condition” — you know, as one does — and two results jumped out at me. The first was from the novel “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch. I’ve never read the book, but if the following passage is any indication, surely here we have located the bitter and bilious underbelly of Oprah bookdom:

“Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

God, the first time I read that I laughed so hard it almost made Diet Coke come out my nose. “Murderous with disappointment”! How brilliant is that! That phrase alone makes me want to go out right now and get completely hammered with Janet Fitch. Anyone who could craft such a succinct and pitch-perfect Devastationalist credo is all right in my book. And the crazy thing is, this quote turns up on dozens of blogs and personal web pages where people aggregate their favorite and most inspiring quotes. Apparently some kind of scarily misanthropic nerve has been struck here. I still strongly doubt I could ever bring myself to actually read the book, but the movie is now in my Netflix queue — I’ll happily pay to see Michelle Pfeiffer speak those words.

The second quote, which also turned up in more than one of the Google search results, is by a Seattle-born Theravadan Buddhist monk, Ajahn Sumedho:

“We suffer a lot in our society from loneliness. So much of our life is an attempt to not be lonely: ‘Let’s talk to each other; let’s do things together so we won’t be lonely.’ And yet inevitably, we are really alone in these human forms. We can pretend; we can entertain each other; but that’s about the best we can do. When it comes to the actual experience of life, we’re very much alone; and to expect anyone else to take away our loneliness is asking too much.”

To me the interesting thing is that he’s using almost the exact same words as the protagonist of “White Oleander” but his message is meant to be one of comfort and transcendence, in contrast to her message of embitterment and isolation. It just kills me how tiny and subtle the difference is between these two mortally opposed ways of looking at the world. You can read the entire essay here.

Certainly, I’ve held both viewpoints at various times. Life events and certain kinds of inner temperaments can isolate you and leave you feeling stranded or alienated, but our minds still try to find ways to reach out to each other, across great distances of both time and space if necessary, to feel the reassuring thrum of psychic resonance. Not that it’s always easy to achieve. But as far back as I can remember I’ve never felt completely disconnected, and that’s because of music.

Music made me feel less alone, and I know that’s a big part of why I surrendered so completely to it. And I mean it made me feel less alone literally, in the sense of a community to belong to and lyrics that miraculously were generous enough to encompass my misfit concerns. But I also mean it in the abstract spiritual sense of being at home in the universe and feeling connected to humanity.

Speech and gestures and body language and sex are all wonderful, of course, but sometimes they are simply not enough to communicate the things we need to communicate. Sometimes they are not even enough to provide evidence that we are engaging with living conscious spirits similar to our own. Music (and not just music, of course, but all art) provides that evidence when we need it the most, and communicates some of the things words and gestures are helpless to convey.

Wide Eyed Fool

Bettie Serveert


10 Replies to “Gotta Keep Bars In Between Us”

  1. I’m not sure this relates, but i think it does. anyway, i copy it here because i was thinking about this after reading your post and scribbled it out.reading is becoming more and more an academic pursuit. college educated people read ‘serious’ fiction (the masses, if they read, read genre fiction). but these readers learn to read, are educated to read, in college and high school. they have been pre-selected for this process. They are the privileged few who will be initiated into the mysteries of Critical Thinking. academia sets out to take readers and turn them into analyzers. the close identification of reader and text, the absorption of the reader into the writer’s imaginative universe, which is a dimension, a collaborative experience with writer as Mage or Adept or Shaman, which is the typical experience of the person who early on loves to read, is thrown into question. it is seen in ethical and political terms, and ultimately intellectual terms. That myserium is suspect wherever it turns up and must be broken. The initial impulse is love, desire, identification, empathy, introjection, projection, cathexis. Time travel, transcendence. Synesthesia. That must be diverted towards separation, analysis, breakdown, purpose, function. Readers come out on the other side, degree in hand, and read fiction created by writers who have been subjected to the same indoctrination. The writer’s defense against creating a text that invites close identification is constant irony. The reader then looks for this irony as a support to the distance they are trying to maintain. Both now cut off the possibility of art to create, sustain and REVEAL the interconnectedness of BEING.

  2. That might explain why all I read these days is nonfiction.

    There’s a nice quote from someone, somewhere (Elizabeth Bishop?) that goes something like, “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”

    I have the awful feeling that I’ve left you that comment before. Me = a limited amount of wisdom that fortunately applies to a wide variety of situations.


  3. Jon — Dude! But that’s it exactly! Yes! That’s perfectly put.

    I’d write something like “more on this later,” but my recent track record isn’t very good. Still, this dovetails nicely with my current Alan Watts bender, and all the usual ongoing debates between holistic views of BEING and materialist/reductionist ways of seeing the universe.

    And Mrs. Kennedy — Thanks for the quote. Thankfully, there is still art and experience to be had out there that resonates beyond our intellect or the immediate apprehension of our five senses and it’s worth pursuing.

  4. Not to be all unpoetical, but loneliness is just a kind of anxiety. To make loneliness this noble, universal state seems the special bailiwick of Buddhists. Buddhists are such a drag sometimes. And I suppose it’s to prevent the arrogance of saying, “I know all the answers, because I’ve meditated a lot and I have some clarity on the issue,” but just once I’d like to hear a Buddhist say, “Meditation makes me feel better, happier, less lonely.” Cuz it does. But for some reason no one’s supposed to talk about it.

  5. Yeah, I’ve never thought loneliness was a particularly noble path, nor ultimately an unavoidable one. But loneliness as a form of anxiety — ooh, I do like that! It suggests that anxiety arises when we are disconnected from the universal grid. Art, sex, meditation — these are all non-rational ways leading back to connectedness.

    You have any theories as to why that is unspeakable?

  6. I love seeing Jon Frankel and George Faulkner and Miss Kennedy posting here. Miss Kennedy was my fourth grade teacher wasn’t she?

    Well I had to add my own two senses in as to theories why happiness might be unspeakable:


    Meditation might make you happier one day and sadder the next. Over time you become more comfortable with those changes and that comfort is better than experiencing the discomfort of anxiety or loneliness.

    I’m not piping as the arrogant Buddhist (I love that image) saying “I’ve meditated a lot and I have some clarity!” – but I’ve spent a good portion of my 30 years of on and off again meditating dealing with this very subject. Loneliness.

    As one of my teachers put it…

    (paraphrased)’you keep looking at aloneness as loneliness because you believe you need the presence of another to nourish you, but in can also be solitude in which you find nourishment in the presence of your own awareness. This stays with you even when you are with others!’

    The last part was meant as kind of a tease because we had discussed how sometimes you can feel utterly lonely right next to the person you love.

    I have another great quote from a question and answer session with another Buddhist teacher about loneliness that I’ll post separately.

    Good to see you all…Philip – POST MORE!


  7. George, David, and especially Jelena, Liz & Kyoko —

    Please forgive my manners. Sorry it took me so long to reply. Thank you for your kind words and for not giving up on the poor, forlorn and utterly neglected Devastationalist Manifesto. I think we may be back in business now, knock wood.

    PS: David, I think we’re all about ready now for that separate post you promised.

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