Wir Alle Sind Allein

If you speak German, you would know what the title means. If you don’t, I am not trying to show off with a German title. Read on, and you’ll find out what it means and why I had to use it.

I recently met a Mexican solo traveller- Xavier. Most solo travellers have something in common: they are not scared of being alone; they are not necessarily introverts; in fact, they could make most people feel at ease in their company; and they know how to enjoy solitude. They also tend to think too much, mostly about questions that we will probably never be able to answer.

We got along well and decided to travel together for a bit. Xavier hitchhikes. So for about 250 kilometers in Central Mexico, we picked points on the map. He would get there by hitchhiking, and I would ride Brownie till that point. We mostly wildcamped, except when a restaurant owner invited us to camp in the backyard of one of his abandoned properties- lush green with a fish-pond.

Besides helping me improve my Spanish, Xavier introduced me to a lot of Latin American literature and explained to me the nuiances of Mexican cuisine like no other. I passed on to him whatever little I know about meditating.

We had way too many interesting conversations. The day we parted, he brought up Sartre and existentialism. It was a conversation we could not finish. He had also asked me to read something by Huxley. While reading that, I came across these words:
“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies–all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”

Sartre and the words above remind me of a conversation that I had in Norway with a German woman. I could not share it with Xavier that day due to lack of time. I now feel like sharing it with all of you.

I was camping in a Norwegian fjord. A fjord, loosely put, is a geographical combination of ocean and mountains mostly found near the poles, I think. In the majestic beauty of that fjord, you could undergo ego death worse than an acid trip.



A few hours after I set up my tent, arrived an RV or a Wohnmobil (as the Germans call it). My cell phone battery had died so I decided to knock on its door. A white man in his 60s opened the door. I asked him in English if I could charge my phone. He didn’t speak English so he called his wife outside who spoke English a lot more than him but not too much. (As soon as he did, I figured they were German.) Before the wife came outside, I tried to construct the sentence in German in my head. When I said it out loud, Joachim and Katherina were surprised and smiled. Speaking a person's language purges most suspicions that s/he may have about you. Katherina immediately invited me inside the Wohnmobil.

Her fine wrinkles, like runes, secretly conveyed her youthful beauty. The warmth in her eyes and her gentle smile (but childish laughter) compensated for whatever little those wrinkles managed to hide. Over the next two days, we talked a lot, sometimes over some fine wine- in Germlish with Katherina and in German with Joachim (sometimes Katherina had to act as our interpreter).

In my travels through Europe, in the initial few weeks, I asked some people what they believed was the meaning of life. I stopped posing that question after this conversation.

On our third day of camping next to each other, it was raining outside. So Katherina had invited me over. She was reading one of those German thrillers that she had introduced me to. I, too, was reading something. Joachim was out fishing on his inflatable motor boat- his “new toy” as Katherina referred to it.

It was a little abrupt when I asked Katherina, “Can I ask you something?”

Was möchtest du fragen?” (What do you want to ask?)

Was ist der Sinn des Lebens?” (What is the meaning or purpose of life?)

She laid her book on the table, took off her reading glasses, and looked right into my eyes trying to gauge my earnestness in order to decide whether or not to respond honestly.

She smiled. And then a tear trickled down her face. (That’s not always a sign of being sad. Being honest requires courage. I think the feat of having decided to be honest to a stranger made her happy.)

She said, “Wir alle sind allein.” (We are all alone.)

That was the prelude to her lengthy response. Now it may sound dramatic, but as soon as I heard those four words, they echoed in my head. Wir. Alle. Sind. Allein. Over and over again. I was ensconced in that chair of the Wohnmobil, but my mind was a maelstrom for not knowing how to react: I conjured up the whole world, the galaxies, interspecies communication and what not. I even imagined the Big Bang and everything that must have happened until that moment. It was hard for me to focus on what else she had to say, but I know she was being brutally honest.

One thing I remember that she said was: “People change. You can spend your whole life with another person. Suddenly, one day, that person will do something that will make you wonder, ‘I thought I knew this person.’”

After a long monologue, and during which she seemed to me like an old person eagerly wanting to pass on her life lessons to a (worthy?) younger stranger, she suddenly went back to being her normal self. She took out her binoculars to look out if Joachim was on his way back. He was indeed. She excitedly went about, “Oooh, my husband’s back. It’s time for lunch!”

I looked at her and tried to communicate to her that we had just had such a deep conversation, how could she go back to being her normal self so conveniently? I had more questions: whom was she referring to when she said that people change; was she hurt; if we all are alone then why did she go through it all; why should anyone go through life at all? But the conversation was over for her. Perhaps, she was feeling vulnerable having revealed too much to a stranger whom she had just got to know. Perhaps, not. I’ll never know.

Right then, Joachim knocked on the door.

“Give me a few minutes, honey. Lunch will be ready soon. The young man and I were having a chat.”

Joachim said he will be back and shut the door.

Katherina quickly added, “I like you because you are doing what YOU wanted to do. That’s how it should be. That’s how I was.” And, once again, went back to being her normal self.

For me, those four words were too overwhelming. I wanted to leave immediately- not just the Wohnmobil but that place. I wanted to be back on the road. Alone. I didn’t care anymore about Emma, somebody I had got to know close to that place.

I packed my stuff and said goodbye to Katherina. Joachim was not around. We hugged each other. She knew I was not mad at her or anybody. I was mad that somebody else had affirmed my belief based on their experience. I didn’t turn back till I was far away from her. When I did, she was still there looking at me through her binoculars. I think she was making sure that I was all right till I was out of her line of sight.

In hindsight, perhaps it was not an extraordinarily unique revelation of a truth. After all, back in school, from age 7-9, I was dressed up as Krishna and made to recite the summary of the Bhagwad Gita on the birth anniversary of Krishna. One of the things the Bhagwad Gita says is exactly what Katherina did. That’s what Sartre said. And Huxley too.

Why not opt out of life then? Why go through it nevertheless?

I now think that when Katherina suddenly went back to being normal, what she tried to demonstrate to me was that “wir alle sind allein” is a realisation that one must constantly bear in mind as a defence mechanism, while we perform our many parts merely as players and go through our relationships, so we won’t feel hurt because of another person.

But that still does not answer the question- why go through life in the way we have organised ourselves (to avoid the Hobbesian state of nature) if wir alle sind allein? And how do we reconcile this with Christopher McCandless’s realisation that “happiness [is] only real when shared”?

PS: I am perfectly all right. I am going to deal with happiness in a series of posts to follow.

5 comments:

  1. it's becoming a piece of art, thank you :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved these deep thoughts. I especially liked the Huxley quote. Perhaps we are not as alone as it seems. Consider that you are a conglomeration of trillions of cells. You perceive yourself as one entity, but are composed of many, and each cell within you lives and dies its own life. Our thinking, what we perceive as our "self," depends on the vast network of connections between neurons--it is somehow within the pattern of synaptic connections that we form memories, thoughts, emotions, etc. Outside of ourselves we are parts of other groups--part of a family, a nation, a religion, a species, an ecosystem. The connections are different, and we act as an isolated unit, but perhaps the larger whole is more than we can perceive. (Can an individual muscle or liver cell perceive that it is part of a whole body? Can an individual bee understand the meaning of being part of a hive?). I am fascinated by the networks that form in nature--fungal mycelia being one excellent example, but it is a pattern repeated at many scales. Perhaps there is something more to the Gaia hypothesis; perhaps we are not as isolated and alone as it seems. I joke to my students that they should never feel lonely, since they rule over a kingdom of gut bacteria that outnumbers their human cells 10 to 1. I feel no actual connection to my gut bacteria (except for times of intestinal distress!), yet we are discovering that the gut microbiome may influence our appetites, certain gene expression, and even our moods.

    I love hearing about your grand adventure! Though you are alone, you are creating many connections everywhere you travel--you are strengthening a network of human connections so that an American in Texas now feels a connection to a German woman he has never met and probably never will, and a connection to random Mexican families you have met. Without you, those connections would not exist. By your actions you are strengthening a network of humanity across disparate cultures. Ride on, my friend, ride on!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great response. Thanks

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Kevin for sharing all those thoughts. A Hungarian friend used the analogy of atoms and subatomic particles. But I can relate to what you have said about microbes. Incidentally I'd attended a temporary and a very interesting exhibition in that regard in the Museum of Natural History in New York. The thing is cells and atoms are not sentient beings like us. It is our interactions with other human beings that can result in unhappiness. In order to avoid that, I wanted to share Katherina's advice which is to accept the fragility of human emotions and relationships in order to be an emotionally stronger and happier individual. I understand your point that it may lead to loneliness. For me, I am always trying to find ways to not let solitude degenerate into loneliness.

      And thank you so much for putting it across like that. I didn't see the possibility of forging such human connections through my travels and my blog. Those words will keep me going.

      I hope everybody at home is well!

      Delete