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.
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 is so memorable as to sear 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.