Peaks and Valleys

I want to write a bit about loneliness because I feel that it’s one of the many things I know about, and don’t just switch off now thinking that this is gonna be some maudlin exposition on my sad, sad, pitiful life. That’s part of this too, that instant gut reaction to equate loneliness with sadness and sadness to pity. I want to write about the fact that melancholy isn’t necessarily always a pit for  weepy sad-sacks with nothing better to do then feel sorry for themselves.

So let’s start with a very tired metaphor; Life is a journey, there are peaks, there are valleys, there are quaint little picnic areas, and creepy decrepit truck stops. But each and everything along the way is an experience that makes you you, and boy aren’t you great?  Everyone’s heard this one, it’s a commencement speech classic, but I feel like we’ve heard it so many times we sort of stopped thinking about what it means. We assume it means, life is a journey and you’ll just go from one place to the next, don’t worry if it sucks because something better is bound to come along. So what if you stuck in that stupid old valley? You’ve got a peak straight ahead of you, and won’t that be awesome? You’ll be up so high, you can look down at that valley and say “Psh, stupid valley. I’m above sea level now bitch!”

Of course I disagree, I don’t think the point of a valley is that sooner or later you’ll get to a peak. I think sometimes in life it’s important to be in the valley. Consider it this way; the human experience is intensely complex and almost totally ineffable (though as evidenced by the existence of blogging we never stop trying to eff it). We could spend a whole lot of time contemplating where self comes from and trying to translate what self means to me into what self means to you. But it’s a long, frustrating, exhausting and probably futile exercise. So while we could spend our lives pursuing self we generally spend our time chasing comfort. I can’t tell you how many  mornings I get up to go to work and calculate in my head how many hours I have to suffer through before I get to go back to bed. Work is the valley, sleep is the peak.

I think comfort is to blame. We want to be happy and we’re happy when we’re comfortable, but I’m most comfortable when I’m in bed and if I spent my whole life asleep I don’t think anyone could argue that I was using my time productively.

The metaphor itself is largely unfair to valley’s, valleys can be nice, valley’s can be beautiful.  So can melancholy. Imagine a painting by one of the great Romantics. A man stands on cliff in a strong wind, to his right a fiery sun blazes in the sky bleeding pink and red gushes of color onto the frothy clouds, to his left an oncoming storm blankets the landscape in black shadows and in those shadows is every unnameable, unspeakable horror that keeps the man awake at night. This is life with the volume turned up, life that is experienced, explored and felt.

Sure it seems a bit silly and sentimental to us rational beings to relish loneliness or fear or melancholy, when we could so easily ignore all that and be comfortable, but if that’s our strategy then there are emotional muscles which we just aren’t using. What happens when those are muscles we need to use? That’s when loneliness overwhelms us, when we’ve done everything in our power to pretend like it doesn’t exist.  

 The sort of loneliness I’m talking about is an isolation from others built on a recognition, either permanent or temporary, that you will not be totally excepted or understood as your complete self by other humans, because other humans are other humans and the human experience is intensely complex and almost totally ineffable. Once again this isn’t the Eeyore kind of thing, turn off your Hawthorn Heights and see past the self pity here. We are social animals and so isolation makes us uncomfortable  but we are conscious animals and our consciousness makes us isolated. I know this sounds like the sort of things potheads talk about when the mood turns existential, but why is it necessary for either drugs or self-pity to make us think about what it means to exist?

Why do we spend all our time in the valley thinking “Gee, I wish I was up on that peak.”? 

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