Gibran on Loneliness

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 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 can 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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Note. This post first appeared on this blog on April 1, 2018.

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4 thoughts on “Gibran on Loneliness

  1. I can’t count the times I’ve asked myself: Did I just say or do that? While always trying to emulate Socrate’s advise of “Know Thyself,” my darn Id will randomly override my Super-ego.

  2. Hi John, nice poem, nice sentiment–I think of John Donne’s “No man is an island” in a kind of opposition to this (I don’t have the poem in front of me nor do I remember it totally), and others in agreement…some German poet who says we do everything, finally, alone, including dying…and that is so. I have plenty of friends who have chosen to be alone, mostly bachelors…I have six grown children, ten grandchildren, one great-grandchild and the prospect of more, and in my 82 years I have since age 19 been married to somebody or other except for brief interludes (the current and final wife these last 47 years) and I do not feel this Gibranian isolation. We do not need to totally understand one another to feel connected. I even understand (and love) many Republicans!

  3. thanks for the beautiful sentiments. And I don’t really feel lonely either, although I understand what Gibran is getting at. ANd let me say you are a better man than myself in that you can love some Republicans. That is a hard thing to do! JGM

  4. Dear Dr. Messerly, thank you for giving us a chance to air our views, now for the oft repeated, ‘I know who I am’ I would say we know who we have been inculcated to think we are, we are imprisoned in the World described by the unceasing narrative in our heads, something we learn to repeat early in life and, for most, never challenge, a narrative which, since it is bound by the constraints and inadequacies of language can never really describe who we really could be, nor the possibilities we could might find just outside the World described, and bound, by words, There is a World outside words, some reach it with Music, some others perhaps have other ways!

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