The Terrifying Feeling of Being Alone in the World
Embracing your unique self is essential for relating to others.
Remember when you were just beginning to take your first steps? You had been holding onto the sofa in the living room and your parents and grandparents were clapping and cheering as you let go of the sofa with one hand and took a step forward. Then you completely let go of the couch and took two or three shaky but quick steps into the middle of the room. You were smiling, two bottom teeth flashing and everyone was screaming, “You did it! Hooray! You're walking!”
As you took each new step, your father went to the middle of the room, and took a step backward as he held out his hands to encourage you to keep walking. And then you stopped and realized that you weren't holding on to anything or anyone. You were on your own in the middle of the room. “How did I get here?” you asked yourself. “What am I doing out here all by myself without anything to hold me up? I can’t do this!” And you sat down on the floor in a flood of tears as your mother rushed over and scooped you up.
Standing in the middle of the room on your own was a crucial moment of self awareness that you were independent. You were no longer holding onto the couch or onto Mommy’s apron strings. It was just you and the world. That was the first fleeting moment that you subconsciously realized that you were a person—a “self” in your own right.
And what is the natural reaction to this realization of a personal identity? Absolute terror. So you sat down.
That feeling is one of fear of your own identity, of being alone within your own self. This realization is ingrained as part of the human condition. It is an existential feeling of being alone on your own in the big living room called the world.
This realization can give rise to your feeling alienated, isolated and lonely. And it is natural. Whenever you feel isolated or lonely in life, you are tapping into the same feeling that you first experienced standing alone in the middle of your parents’ living room as you walked for the first time.
Those scary, lonely situations don't have to give rise to a feeling of alienation. Yes, you are “alone” because you are unique! No one else in the entire universe has your personality, your unique DNA, your upbringing, environment and unique mix of abilities and weaknesses.
Now you can say to yourself, “I am different and therefore, I am lonely" or "I am different and therefore I am unique and special." In order to play your unique role in the world you have to be alone. But this does not mean that you have to be lonely.
This awareness of your unique “self” can be a motivator. It can challenge you with the realization that your unique characteristics empower you to perform a unique job that only you can perform. You have been handpicked for your unique destiny. When you look at your existential self in this light you can turn the liability of being “lonely,” into the asset of being “alone” and unique in the world. Instead of living in dread of your loneliness, you can revel in your aloneness. It is only when you are “alone” that you can truly fulfill your potential.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4) asks why God created the first man, Adam, alone. It explains that Adam was created alone so that each and every person who is born could relate and identify with his singularity and aloneness and say: “I am like Adam.”
In creating Adam alone, God challenges us to become aware of our separate and unique identities and to get to know ourselves so that we can successfully relate to others. We have to become self-aware; we must learn to relate to ourselves. Before Eve married Adam, she was an individual in her own right. We need to become aware of our individuality before we enter into a healthy, giving relationship.
This is the meaning of Hillel’s famous saying in the Ethics of the Fathers: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (1:4). Far from being a statement promoting the ego, it is really a challenge that you have to get to know who you are and learn to develop a personal self-concept as a prerequisite to activating your potential.