Reposted from Medium
I got a puppy not so long ago. Or I should say that my partner got us a puppy. But mostly for me. As a little companion, since I have this odd condition where the sunlight can kill me. He’s a tiny white thing, a cloud, a cotton puff, a snowball. The vampire and his ghost dog, my friends joke. He just came to rest on my old boots as I typed these words, this minuscule and sweet and delicate — and sometimes fierce and determined — ghost dog.
It’s the end of the summer here in London. The rain’s started to fall again. We walk to the park under gray skies. Snowy plays with his friends — Kobe, Spikey, Lester, Jackie — all the same. The rain pit-pats against the leaves of the old trees. The dogs laugh and run and chase each other like the sun was pouring golden light down from a blue, blue sky.
Until the thunder comes.
And then Snowy looks up, startled, afraid. He barks his little bark — and runs straight for my arms. All the puppies do.
“It’s OK, little guy”, I tell him, stroking his head as his scared eyes go wide. “It’s just the thunder!” His heart pounds and his little paws judder in my arms. I lift him up. He’s heavier in my arms every day now.
As you probably know — laugh with me — it doesn’t work. It’s the most ineffectual thing in the world to comfort a little puppy when the sky seems to be falling. Snowy whines and yips and whelps every time, just the same. So I take him home. And there in the comfort of his the little den I’ve built for him — just just a yard or two of hardwood, a little bed, toys, water, food — he rests. Until the thunder cracks again. And he comes straight to my arms. It’s easy to laugh. It’s funny — cute — in a way. “Puppies get so scared! They don’t know the sky isn’t falling!”
But my puppy knows something about thunder that I don’t. Something deep and beautiful and strange and true. He is much wiser and truer than I am.
I try to imagine what Snowy feels when the sky pulses with light and roars like an ocean. He feels a sudden reduction, a shocking sense of smallness, I think. That he is the littlest and most vulnerable thing in his whole wide world, at that moment — a world which, so far, is the walk from the park to the pet shop to home and back again, and he has come to know and master in his own little proud way. But when the thunder cracks — so does his little world.
An overwhelming existential fear surges through his little bones like a mighty ocean, in other words. A sense of profound, terrible, impossible loneliness. Powerlessness. Helplessness. He has come face to face with himself in this instant strobe-lit by the lightning piercing the sky. And so he runs for my arms. For consolation, for strength, for nourishment. For safety, for protection, for warmth, for intimacy. I hold him tight.
But the thunder cracks in my life, and yours, too, my friends. We lose our jobs. We fall in and out of love. The person who nourished and raised us passes away. What do we feel? My sky is falling. My sky is falling. Grief, as endless as a river. Sorrow as cold as winter. In those moments, we feel pure despair. The sudden rupture. The unexpected death, the unforeseen loss, the divorce, breakup, firing, end of an age of us. The letting go. Who are we now? Who can we be now that this part of us is gone?
The lightning pierces the sky. We come face to face with the truth of ourselves. In those moments, my friends, we see ourselves as we truly are. Our essential existential condition. Loneliness. Powerlessness. Helplessness. Loss. Finitude. In other words, “life events” like these are so traumatic for us for a very good, and very specific, reason. They strip away all that we have built up to protect ourselves and shield ourselves from the unbearable truth, the impossible pain. Of just existing.
Because just existing is the most painful thing of all. Consider us for a tiny moment. Birth, struggle, love, age, time, death, dust. We have no answers. We have endless questions. Where did we come from? Who put us here? Why are we here at all? Where do we go?
At the core of us, there is an ache. A terrible and profound ache. And that ache hasn’t been recognized enough yet. By our cultures, societies, polities, economies — all these vast and grand systems and structures we have built, or more accurately, rebuild, by spending every day of our lives within their confines. Those systems don’t care that we ache terribly, deep inside. They just give easy and false illusions to try to numb the pain with.
(Existence is a searing ache? Can’t sit with, in, by yourself for ten minutes without feeling helpless? Here — buy some more stuff! You’ll feel better — as long as you feel superior to the next person! It doesn’t work for very long, does it? And the longer it “works”, the worse the disillusionment is in the end. Reach middle age buying into this way of life — and cue a midlife crisis of epic proportions, a sense of futility, meaninglessness, emptiness.)
Our systems and structures have given us, in other words, inadequate solutions to the problem of existence. “Solution” and “problem” are the wrong words, of course. But perhaps you see my point. They offer us illusions of cheap, transient, easy pleasure. They offer us “lifestyles” and consumerism and status competition and dopamine rushes. They offer us drugs — when we are desperate for warmth, intimacy, salvation, consolation, from the unbearable predicament of the existence we find ourselves in.
But what needs to be done — for us to realize ourselves, to continue developing into beings of empathy, curiosity, courage, grace, truth, wisdom, defiance, compassion — is to confront the impossibility of our condition. The truth that just existing is terror enough. Nothing more should ever be added to it — not a day of poverty, a moment of instability, an instant of hunger or thirst. That just existing — that is a burden no one can carry alone.
Ah, did you see that? Now we are back to my puppy and thunder. I said: my puppy is much smarter, wiser than me. He is a truer thing. He walks closer to the earth. He breathes in the soil and the rain. His world is smaller — but it is nearer. He knows something about the thunder that you and I don’t.
Just existing is a burden so heavy that no one can carry it alone.
When the thunder cracks, he leaps into my arms. He’s not ashamed of it. He doesn’t feel guilty about it. He is not afraid I will reject him, wound him, hurt him. He just runs into my arms. He doesn’t hesitate for a moment, second-guess himself, worry, overthink, imagine reasons not to. The thunder cracks. My puppy sees himself in the lightning. He leaps into my arms. Existence is a burden, he knows, so heavy that no one can carry it alone.
Now contrast that with you and I. The thunder cracks in our lives. We’re laid off, we break up, we can’t face the mornings anymore. We are having some kind of episode in our life that strips away all our defenses — and we are coming face to face with the truth of us, which is that just existing is a terrible ache. All those questions without answers. All that fear, dread, terror. Of mortality, of time, of becoming dust. Of being powerless to change it for even a second. Of being helpless, in this deepest of ways. Just like a child. Just like a little puppy.
But what do we do?
We try to carry the burden of existence alone, most of the time. We feel guilty. We feel ashamed. We feel afraid of what others will say, think, do. We say to ourselves: “I can’t tell anyone I lost my job. I can’t tell anyone my marriage isn’t working out. I can’t tell anyone I feel depressed every morning. I must bear this burden alone!” That is what strong people do, isn’t it? It’s not just that that is what our culture — hyperindividualistic, aggressive, macho, valuing dominance and acquisitiveness and ego above all things — says. It is just human, in a way. To want not to burden others.
But here is what we are really saying.
“I can’t tell anyone how lost and alone and afraid I feel. Just existing. Just being. I can’t say it. I can never, ever mention it. That I’m afraid, to my very bones, of being this impossible thing I am. This fragile, limited, finite thing. That will die, become nothing, age, decay. I’m terrified of how powerless I am over my own finitude, of how alone I am in it, of how strange and impossible it is — but it is all the life that I have. I’m frightened of how there are no good answers to the deepest questions I have about just existing at all — and never have been.”
Ah — do you see what we have done? We have made ourselves the victims of a double loneliness. We are condemned, as Sartre said, to be alone — we never really fully know anyone else, no matter how intimate we are. But now we have made ourselves alone even in our loneliness. We have made ourselves alone in carrying all the burdens of existence. Powerlessness, mortality, despair, fear, solitude. I see my puppy when the thunder cracks, in all his loneliness and despair. But that is also because he reveals himself to me. How else could I love him at all?
What happens to someone that tries to carry the burdens of existence alone? Have you ever wondered?
It’s not that they will “fail.” We all fail, in the end, to carry that weight. It’s that they will not even lift it. They will set it down, and walk away. In the opposite direction. Not towards the struggles of life. But away from them. Instead of becoming a person more capable of curiousity, empathy, grace, courage, truth, defiance — they will become less so. They will curdle into egotism, twist into selfishness, crumble into greed. They will become, as Jung said, shadow-selves. They will cease to exist before they have ever really existed at all. They will become shrunken, diminished shadows of who they might have been.
Perhaps that is the point. That to exist takes a very great deal of courage, strength, truth, resolve. Just to exist. Nothing more. It takes whole worlds in us just to wake up every morning and go on. Each and every one of us. As Camus said — nothing is more logical than suicide, for a being who knows he is going to die, but doesn’t know why he was made or lives. And yet we go on.
The turning points that we reach, my friends, are the times that ask us: will we try to carry the impossible, terrible burden of existence alone? One that’s always been to heavy for anyone to shoulder by themselves? Or will we share it — this hidden truth of us, which we are so ashamed of?
Here is a secret. When we share the burden of existence, a kind of magic happens. It is the very opposite of what we are afraid of. Pain becomes happiness, aching becomes joy, suffering is transformed into love, empathy, grace. Two friends share gentle laughter. “You feel all of that? But I do too! I feel just that way!” There is consolation at last, in a universe that, as Camus said, seems indifferent. There is warmth in a cold night. There is a spark in the endless darkness — even just for a moment. There is a glimmer of love lighting the long, winding way home.
I am you and you are me, in this profound and timeless way, and we are all the beings who have ever been. Lost, alone, afraid, ignorant, powerless. The burdens of existence. We are unable to carry them alone. So do we walk away — or do we have the courage and wisdom to share them? Just existing is a terrible curse. But it is also, in fragile, evanescent moments, an impossibly, achingly beautiful thing. Whether it is both, though, is up to us. We must cross the line from despair to grace.
The thunder cracks. My puppy leaps into my arms. I smile. Everyone laughs.I smile and laugh, too. But not for the same reasons everyone else does. Because of what my puppy knows about thunder that I don’t.