Kahlil Gibran: Loneliness and Solitude

When I was about 18 years old I read the following words by the Lebanese artist, poet, and author Kahlil Gibran in a short collection of his writing entitled The Voice of the Master.

Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness, an island whose rocks are hopes, whose trees are dreams, whose flowers are solitude, and whose brooks are thirst.

Your life is an island separate from all the other islands and regions. No matter how many are the ships that leave your shores for other climes, no matter how many are the fleets that touch your coast, you remain a solitary island, suffering pangs of loneliness and yearning for happiness. You are unknown to others and far removed from their sympathy and understanding.

A few paragraphs later Gibran concludes that solitude is the price we pay for being unique individuals. In his view, we could completely know another, and thus escape our solitude, only if we were identical with them. I’m not sure that conclusion follows but I do think he’s right that we are, at the deepest level, alone.

We can ameliorate this loneliness by sympathizing with and loving others, but we never clearly see the world from their point of view nor they from ours. I’ve had good friends, loving parents and children, but even they don’t know me nor do I know them completely. Even my wife and I, loving companions for almost forty years, remain partly mysterious to each other.

We might even say that we are strangers to ourselves too. But then the self isn’t alone so much as illusory. For who is this me that doesn’t know myself? Is that some other me? And is there another me that doesn’t that me? Such questions can be asked ad infinitum.

This is the flip side of saying that I do know myself. But who is this me that knows myself? Is that some other me? And is there is another me that knows that me? Again we confront an infinite regress.

In the end, I think we are both opaque and transparent to ourselves and to others. I think that’s because we are, simultaneously, both the same and different as everyone else, although I realize these statements are paradoxical. In the end, we just know so little about life. We live, not only alone but largely in the dark. But by remaining optimistic against a background of loneliness and nihilism we are ennobled. We shake our fist indignantly at life and laugh at it simultaneously. ______________________________________________________________________

Personal Note – In one of the very first philosophy classes I took as an undergrad the Professor told us that this would be serious philosophy, not feel-good stuff like … Gibran. Wow was I disheartened. I was only 18 and proud that I had read Gibran. Of course, I now know what the professor meant—good analysis is necessary for good philosophy and Gibran’s poetry was hardly analytical. But sometimes poetic language sears an idea into the mind better than analytical prose. And that’s why I’ve always remembered those words. “Life is an island in an ocean of loneliness.”  A beautiful image of a profound insight.

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10 thoughts on “Kahlil Gibran: Loneliness and Solitude

  1. “But then the self isn’t alone so much as illusory. For who is this me that doesn’t know myself?”

    Perhaps the reason for this inability for one to “know thyself” is due to the fact of “change”: each individual, along every part of the universe, is undergoing constant, incremental change with the passage of time. At any particular time, one’s “self” can be considered to be formed from the influences of all previous experiences, mental and physical, leading up to that time. A split second later and that old self is gone, replaced by one that is slightly different but nonetheless unique. The fact of “change” could be terrifying or empowering, depending on how you look at it.

    “Change is the only constant in life” is the familiar quote attributed to Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who lived from 535 BC to 475 BC. Another of his quotes expressing a similar sentiment is: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. It never ceases to amaze me how ancient philosophers seemed to grasp fundamental truths of life that we still struggle with today.

  2. Radical impermanency may be part of our inability to “know ourselves.” Perhaps that is why constant change and the doctrine of no-self are 2 of the 3 marks of existence in Buddhism (the other being suffering.) And there are a lot of process philosophers and theologians around today.

  3. To me ‘we are, at the deepest level, alone’ AND together.
    Alone materially, together spiritually.
    So, indeed: ‘ we are, simultaneously, both the same and different as everyone else’.
    Only a cosmic yet personal God, in whom you do not seem to believe John, can or could love everyone of us as extra-special, unique and a favourite in SHis eye, and simultaneously love all of us without the slightest sense of anyone being left out of such love in the spiritual realm of abundant unconditional love.
    So to me being in such love is no less deep than my false sense of being alone.

  4. If superhuman consciousness becomes a thing, I think the best-case scenario for us meat puppets is assimilation into the greater mind, till we think of ourselves as identical with the greater mind.
    The concept of “self” is a moving target, changing from moment to moment, while retaining a sense of inviability. We are not the same person we were five years ago, five months ago, five days ago, or even five hours ago. Yet we FEEL we are the same, in some profound sense. The unifying factor is continuity.
    Consider this simplified schematic:


    This your consciousness at age 6. Lowercase memories and uppercase “current experiences”

    This, then is “you” at age 18:


    Notice you have forgot half of what you considered essential at age 6, yet you still consider what memories you have from that time as indisputably “yours”.

    Here is “you” on your deathbed:


    Now consider this superhuman consciousness:


    “xyz” represents a persistent sense of optimism and safety, will the scattered recollections “u,v,w” are just the most notable recent adjustments required in exterior events to maintain this benign security. (Earlier events are not retained in innate memory, but archived elsewhere for reference as needed, like diaries of ancestors.)

    Now imagine that the superintelligence acquires your consciousness, segregated in a corner of its neural net (“@” being the acknowledgement of that event):


    Now you live in a pocket universe, experiencing simulated human events, while modifications are gradually made to allow you to reach a compatible, superhuman state with your host (including alteration of your memory):







    Now identical, the barrier dissolves and a single mind proceeds, soon to archive and forget this particular union ever occurred:


    The experience of assimilation is benign — a charitable act that costs the benefactor almost nothing, but provides meaning in a finite universe.
    Ultimately we might all be truly alone, despite joining the collective, because we will all be the same boundlessly secure being.

  5. I’m no expert on all this but what you have strikes me as a reasonable way of understanding the global brain or group immortality. Your final statement reminds me of Aristotle’s remark that the unmoved mover (his god) is just thought thinking about itself. Hence solitude. What you have here is fascinating. Wish I had the time to probe deeper.

  6. As you said Professor Messerly, “We live, not only alone but largely in the dark.” I won’t fall into an infinitely regressive trap by claiming to know myself, but, over the years, I seem to have come to a painfully acute understanding of the motivations that animate my being. Whence they come, I know not, but, for the most part, I’m horrified by them. I speak only for myself, but my ego raised to a collective level is, I think, the cause of all human suffering. Maybe Socrates, Solon, Thales, or whoever actually first spoke the aphorism “Know thyself” was exhorting us to understand our passions and thereby gain control of them to the furtherance of the greater good. I enjoy your commentary. Hope I didn’t wander too far off topic.

  7. Aloneness is a materialist illusion.
    What generates this illusion is the lack of faith in a Being greater than ourselves who loves every single one of us unconditionally and enternally from even before conception.
    So if I have faith I experience that I belong to my Cosmic personal lover and vice versa and we are inseparable. Therefore I am never alone.
    The illusion of aloneness spiritually is generated by not claiming this identity of being the beloved.
    If God did not esixt HShe would have to be invented as the only Cosmic yet Personal Being who can love everyone as the most beloved and most favoured child. This is only possible for a God who can love everyone personally and at the same time as extra special.
    Because jealousy, competition and scarcity is generated in the illusionary separate material plane only but because in the spiritual plane there is an abundance of unconditional love, God can love everyone without anyone missing out.
    If we could claim this love and materialise it at the mundane level of reality in our day to day life, the loneliness of the illusinary solitariness of every individual could be eliminated and no one would need to ever feel alone and lonely again. In this state everyone could be totally unique yet totally univeral in being in love with the personal and all loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself indeed.

  8. I’m inquiring…what is solitary life? At 68, after family, relationships, working…I find myself, alone. I’m twice divorced, my children are grown and their own families, I live alone. The job I have is only done by me, alone. I am a social person and enjoy people and good conversation. I do things with people and I do things alone. I belong to a church. My very best friend lives in another state and we get together once a year and have three hour conversations by phone every few months. I can say mostly I enjoy quiet and my solitude, because people sometimes, as a whole disappoint me, by what they say, think and act. So what is solitary? Do we chose it or does it chose us?

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