If I am finally honest, I admit I am unhappy. I am uncomfortable with the way things are currently in my life. And I rise every day to a simple task of reform: removing brick by unhappy brick, those foundations that have constructed a world in which I do not know what to do. This discomfort is in some sense energy for daily activities, and at times the right sort of kindling for action. In the end, however, I enter sleep with a deep heaviness that weighs on my soul proclaiming a single word: solitude.
I’m lonely and I don’t like it. I have plenty of friends, and lots of work; I interact cheerfully with others, and attempt to embrace graciousness while avoiding malice and any sort of mischievousness. But unhappiness is rid by recognition not by all, but by all the love of a single person. W. H. Auden has rightly said that what we wish most in this world is not everyone’s love, but all the love of one. We desire to be wholly loved, and to give love in return. This is why the promiscuity of youth is so robbing of ingenuity and gives in return experience and talent in bed rather than the love and care so required for the troubled times that inevitably come when two people enter intimacy.
I do not doubt that others have similar feelings. In fact, I hope the above paragraphs roughly paint an emotional picture of what it might be like to be single in your twenties in America. In a society driven by ambition and competition, which strives to form personalities wrested from tradition, relationships enter into the picture obliquely and often in awkward manners.
We praise the soul’s Promethean expansion and disregard our birthrights, leaving us in a challenge to self-create and of creation by our imagining new worlds, yet we find our resources slim. Without tradition, we are left with little to affirm in ourselves. Without tradition, our ability to elaborate upon and further create the world around us is given few chances to create new, prophetic alternatives to our current state, thereby possibly addressing and abating our world’s problems. Identity and justice are at stake here.
And it is at the moments when we are most vulnerable that we see the starkness of our situation. The issue here is certainly the question of community in today’s America. And we see plainly that the individual and community go together, are nearly mutually constitutive. More importantly, however, I am interested in the question of how our relationships change after a country has inculcated its citizens through and through with notions of ambition and success, competition and challenge, greatness and glory. Have we forgotten – have I forgotten – that I need others as much as I need myself? What is more, what does it mean to fall in love, to – in clichéd language that nonetheless strikes the heart of the matter – lose one’s self in another?
The stories of John Cheever describe this situation nicely: he places incapable personalities into moments where greatness is asked for, yet never achieved. Self-deception, escape, and the delusion of those closest to us follow and we are left returning home to a lover’s apartment only to find it empty – with only the dress she wore last night lying on the bed as a memory of what might only be possible if things were different.
But things aren’t different, and this is not a sad situation. We cannot all steal fire from the Gods and not all of us feel the need to. We are limited beings, and personalities that quake with fear, insecurity, doubt, and vice. But this is not the end of the story. Yes, we are alone sometimes and this is not a cherished situation that we appreciate by its challenge to be overcome. In my view, loneliness might best be understood loosely in Keatsian terms of energy: we are caught on a path of life that, in its ups and downs, still moves. This movement allows us – only in hindsight – to understand tragedy as a necessary aspect of life. Suffering is not valuable in itself, and loneliness in a time when intimacy is desired is never satisfying. But it exists, and I am of the camp that seeks to constantly affirm life. In some odd sense then, through this line of thought, we might be able to assert tragedy as beautiful, and arrive to Giovanni’s fine phrase of the “stink of love,” in Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
To get there we have to level with ourselves as imperfect beings. We have to understand that community is best experienced when dynamic personalities speak to each other: when exchange and competition are both affirmed, when the Promethean expansion of the soul is affirmed because there are moments when life welcomes us into its fullness and those are the points where we fly.
But we don’t stay flying; we fall and that is when we must realize that it is better to fly together, and to fall together. At bottom, we must realize that in order to face the stink of love we have to look our dread in the face and I have to see how I have hurt you (for the American tradition of democracy has brought us great sins of slavery, genocide, and imperialism that we have yet to fully face). But this does not mean another world is not possible, and that we are not the ones to create it.
I affirm Promethean self-expansion and world creation which praises human powers while whole-heartedly acknowledging not only our limits, but also the grotesque tendency we have to hurt one another. This self-reliance is best suited for an Emersonian creative democracy which strives to bring us all into our fullest selves. This, in my view, is not far from love: where we are all fully recognized, not by our labor alone, but by our existing, poorly and greatly. The deep beauty of having another affirm our lives is enough to bring us to our knees in deep graciousness that life allows such wonderful things to happen.
Aaron Stauffer is a third year MDiv student at Union Theological Seminary in NYC with a focus in Ethics. Passionate about developing communities and building power in civic society, Aaron worked as an IAF organizer through the Young Adult Volunteer of the PC(USA) program in 2010-2011, is currently doing his Field Education with the Poverty Initiative at Union, while remaining active with the Student Christian Movement NYC. He finds himself continually drawn to local, organized responses to deep economic, political disenfranchisement and oppression. He blogs regularly at aaronkstauffer.tumblr.com