It is 2 am on a Saturday night and I’m by myself in my new apartment in Berlin with a rather large open bottle of wine, and it seems as good a time as any to contemplate loneliness. Loneliness is surely one of the most pronounced emotions one feels when living abroad. But while loneliness is often painted as the ultimate negative condition, there is something to be gained from simply “being.”
I’m struck by the fact that nearly all of society’s patterns, traditions, and standards are meant to “fix” loneliness. I’m also struck by the fact that many of these “solutions” may inadvertently produce more loneliness. I’m struck that our lives are a constant negotiation between ourselves and the people around us. I’m wondering if most of what we do is meant to connect- in any way possible- to another human being. Our loneliness is what drives us, and it is loneliness that kills us. Loneliness is both fantastically liberating and yet makes us devastatingly dependent. Our need to be touched by others, to be heard by others-despite the consequences, is what is REALLY at the root of human nature. Perhaps this is why I find myself moved to the point of tears on the subway whenever I think of this poem by David Rakoff:
The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all aquiver;
just how would he manage to get across the river?
“The water’s so deep,” he observed with a sigh,
which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby.
“Well why don’t you swim?” asked the slow-moving fellow,
“unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?”
“It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,”
said the scorpion,
“but that i don’t know how to swim.”
“Ah, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib when
I said that. I figured you were an amphibian.”
“No offense taken,” the scorpion replied,
“but how about you help me to reach the far side?
You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack.
Let’s say you take me across on your back?”
“I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,”
said the tortoise, “now that I see that it’s you.
You’ve a less than ideal reputation preceding:
there’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding.
You’re the scorpion — and how can I say this — but, well,
I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.”
The scorpion replied, “What would killing you prove?
We’d both drown, so tell me: how would that behoove
me to basically die at my very own hand
when all I desire is to be on dry land?”
The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense.
When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense.
The niggling voice in his mind he ignored,
and he swam to the bank and called out: “Climb aboard!”
But just a few moments from when they set sail,
the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail.
The tortoise too late understood that he’d blundered
when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.
As he fought for his life, he said, “tell me why
you have done this! For now we will surely both die!”
“I don’t know!” cried the scorpion. “You never should trust
a creature like me because poison I must!
I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction,
but I just can’t help it; my form is my function.
You thought I’d behave like my cousin, the crab,
but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.”
The tortoise expired with one final quiver.
And then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river.
The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts —
because in the end, friends, our natures wins out.
So: what can we learn from their watery ends?
Is there some lesson on how to be friends?
I think what it means is that central to living
a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.
We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether
we kiss or we wound. Still, we must come together.
Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more —
since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore.
So we make ourselves open while knowing full well
it’s essentially saying, “please, come pierce my shell.”
Is this all so very cynical? Perhaps. But the lesson I draw from this is not only the fact that we always risk getting hurt every time we connect with another human being, but that there is value in being alone. Not always, of course. But if you spend your lonely time reflecting about yourself and who you want to be, how you can avoid being the scorpion and rather be the tortoise, than perhaps loneliness, in spades, isn’t such a bad thing after all. When you’re living abroad you will inevitably feel lonely. Rather than trying to remedy this by seeking out people, try to revel in it. It will go away eventually.