“You’re my one in seven billion…” (below: Hong Kong view from the Peak, 2018)
If you reflect deeply enough on human life experience, you might eventually encounter the existentialist belief that we are all suffering from “cosmic loneliness”. In regards to existentialism, cosmic loneliness refers to the idea that our perceptions, emotions, and the qualia of the physical world as it touches our senses give each of us a truly separate experience. This isn’t just about life in general, but it applies to events, too. No matter what action I do, even when performed in the same way as others performed it, I can’t claim to have any better access to their experiences than someone else who hadn’t performed that act.
Think about the experience of viewing a sunrise. Even as millions of others viewed the sunset from Hong Kong’s Peak in similar fashion to the way I view it, with the light hitting my eyes as I stand on the well-worn path, there are still at least a few ways that my experience is unique to me. First, it’s a separate act in time and space. Second, who I am, as a perceiver, who I am accompanied by, and the circumstances that led me to be on the peak are unique to me. This is what’s “cosmic” about it – no where else in the cosmos, by no one else, and never again will my experiences be repeated. Other people are locked out of my head, and I’m locked in.
What about the loneliness that the existentialists talk about? Surely, there are plenty of people who would say they aren’t lonely. Sometimes when people tell me they’re lonely, I reply, “How can one be lonely on a planet of seven billion people?” We can comfort ourselves with the thought that there must be someone out there who is looking for companionship and would enjoy spending time with us.
However, I think that this feeling of loneliness for companionship is not what the existentialists are talking about. There is a different kind of loneliness than having no one to eat dinner with, call you on your days off, and hold you at night.
It’s a deeper, existential loneliness for connecting on a experiential level. It becomes apparent when we recognize two facts:
- As social creatures, we thrive on companionship, especially the feeling that another can emotionally identify with out experience; it’s an integral part of our humanity.
- As unique individuals we can never gain access to the mental life of another human being.
The result is that we spend out lives trying to connect, to find “the one,” the person who “gets us”. The loneliness is the feeling of existential longing for compassion: com = meaning “same”; passion = feelings/emotional experience. Cosmic loneliness is the absurdity in our actions of pursuing something that appears to be an impossibility. And yet, we are born to do it. This fact is weighty on our hearts and I think it’s the one that the existentialists worry about. I am personally alone. You are too.
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Can you identify with “cosmic loneliness”? Have you had moments when you realized you were totally alone, no matter how many people surrounded you?
- Is it better for a human being to think about this feeling or try to ignore it?
- Is there such a thing as “real” love? Some people hope for a spiritual, compassionate love that can offer freedom from the emotional fact of cosmic loneliness. If such love was an antidote, what qualities would make this love different from average relationships?
- Some people hope for an omniscient, onmipotent, all-loving God as the answer. Is closeness with God a possible antidote for cosmic loneliness?