Social Isolation, Qualia, and Clowns
“In one sense, we are all radically alone. I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. Nobody can live for me, or die for me, experience pain for me, or joy for me. Nobody can cry for me, or laugh for me, or dance for me. I go through all of these intimately personal experiences in radical aloneness… We are alone, together. Alone, with everything and everyone. “~ Jeff Foster
I instantly felt the fragility of the human experience when I learned of Robin William’s death. I could relate to what many reports were citing: that he often felt alone, misunderstood, controlled, regulated, and unable to express the “power surges” that he often experienced. But I realize that was presumptuous of me. How could I truly know someone else’s experience? No one on the planet shares the same understanding that we have of our unique lives. The friends and family that love us are observers. They do not know the innermost us.
Ultimately, we see others through our own lens. I do not know what it is like to be another person. I can only know my own experience. And even with supportive friends and loved ones around, I may still feel alone. We all know what it is like to be surrounded by people and still not feel understood. Life seems to mock us—we have a real yearning to be known, and yet we cannot be known.
Scientists from the Consciousness community and the Science and Non-Duality Conference are currently attempting to study the experience of “qualia,” the name for our unique, individual feelings and experiences, like love, taste, and pain. However, there is disagreement even on what the term qualia means and whether or not it exists. So, we must surf through these experiences and try and make meaning for ourselves.
We probably all have felt like we are alone and isolated. When Robin Williams died, I put myself into his shoes and guessed that he must have felt disconnected and alone in the world. I pictured him as a magical being, as unique as a unicorn, and a person who never felt like he fit in. Perhaps he sensed that society wanted to tame and control him. Robin Williams often said in interviews that he felt isolated, like he was standing on the edge of a cliff. Ultimately, he decided to leave the world.
I will admit that I am a bit outside the mainstream. I suspect most people do not “play” with life like I do. Once in college, I was told to stop “playing the clown.” I understood this to mean that I should stop trying to cover up my vulnerabilities with spirited antics. It is true that I often do not feel that the world is safe enough to open up to. Work places are pressure cookers of stress. Friends are busy in their own lives and can sometimes be dismissive. Even people I do not know have the potential to cause harm. With the world the way it is, how could I let go of my clown? It seems safer to retreat from social ties or “act the clown” than to let others see my real self and risk rejection or abuse.
As I see it through my lens, Robin Williams presented his “clown” to the public often. It seems like the real Robin Williams was reserved for those few people who earned the right to know him. After his death, the memorials began to flood the media. We saw recaps of many interviews: Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, the late night talk shows. From my vantage point, it was obvious in those interviews that reporters wanted him to be “normal,” they wanted to control him. It seems to me that, in reality, they had not earned the right to see the real him. He was wild, and he never gave reporters permission to tame him.
I suspect some of you may be reading this article and thinking that all these thoughts and assumptions on my part are “transference,” and you would be right. Throughout my life, I have felt like an outsider trying to fit in. I look at Robin Williams’s death and read my own fears and experiences into his life story. But, am I so unique? Is this a universal experience? Don’t we all want to be seen, accepted and loved for who we are? Perhaps this why Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become our mediums for social expression and interaction. We use them to be seen and heard, to feel connected. Unfortunately, even with millions of selfies, feelings of social isolation persist, like a hole in our being. Some of us fill up this hole with alcohol, drugs, eating, shopping, work, unhealthy relationships, social events…we surround ourselves with distracting activities. We desperately want to avoid the existential experience of isolation, the understanding that, ultimately, we are alone with our experiences.
I can’t help but think that this is by design. We have a human need to connect to others and, yet, we can only know ourselves. It is divine satire.
Perhaps all of this irony exists to remind us to return to what we know, to return to self. Instead of focusing on Robin William’s life and attempting to interpret the reasons for his suicide, perhaps we can use his experience as a mirror to study ourselves. When I do this, it brings up many questions. Am I feeling alone? Am I feeling controlled? Do I feel like a wild, magical being that needs to be honored instead of tamed?
Perhaps, ultimately, we are alone, but others can help us see ourselves better. The actions of those around us can propel introspection. When we become upset or react to others, we can look at the person we are examining/critiquing/judging and ask, “How is this about me?” At the end of the day, we are our own little laboratory. If qualia exists, we can conduct our own, personal studies.