In college, a professor of mine once said Neanderthals did not survive because of their solitary lifestyle. Homo sapiens bonded and built communities. They hunted, raised children together—grew close around a fire. Burning mammoth flesh produced a unique aroma redolent of togetherness and belonging. And yet, their loner brethren wandered alone. One species ended thousands of years ago, and the other? The survivors? We are on the precipice of our own extinction.
Try to turn this into a metaphor and where does it lead you? That to be human is to belong to a group? To survive is to band together? Where does that leave the isolated, the lonely and the forgotten? Darwinism designed to eliminate the different and the socially reserved?
When I left New Zealand I had a hard time admitting that the reason I was fleeing its rocky and steamy shores was this: loneliness. What did it say about me, that after 7 months in a different country, I was filled with an impenetrable, fierce loneliness that seemed to suffocate from the inside out? I’d gone to New Zealand to prove myself capable of becoming the caretaker of my own dreams. In what ways had I fallen short?
Modern life is insulated against loneliness. We have devices designed to constantly remind us that we are creatures operating in a world alongside countless others, liking, commenting, sharing our lives. It’s only a click away. Everyone seems to be having such a good time. It is weak, shameful to admit to our own isolation. Alone, in a cabin in one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen with my own eyes, somehow I felt I’d lost—something about me was not enough.
The truth is—traveling in New Zealand was one of the best and worst experiences of my life. I felt powerful and capable. I learned so much about myself—emotions and desires I would have been unable to unearth without such extreme isolation. Sometimes I’d go days without seeing anyone—left to run and explore a vast wilderness as familiar to me as a face. But sometimes when you see something beautiful, you just want to turn to someone next to you, someone you care for, someone you love and say don’t you see this? Doesn’t it take your breath away?
Loneliness is inherent to this human life of ours. It’s structured within our very flesh. We are born lonely. No matter how much I want to love you, understand your mind and your heart—I will never know what it is like to feel the wind on your cheeks. What does it feel like for you to hit your elbow on a sharp corner? How is pain tolerated and absorbed within another body? I can imagine. I can empathize. I can hope to know. But implicit in this human relationship is the wall of my flesh and yours.
So, how can it be weak, how can it be giving in to say—despite this demarcation line between you and me—I crave the tenderness of conversation designed to bring us as close as possible. How can it be wrong to say—I want to break down walls?
If Neanderthals taught us nothing else, it’s this: to say--I want to understand as much of you as possible—is to say, I want to survive.