August 16, 2022

The Loneliness of Excessive Individualism: Lessons from a Squirrel, a Palace & a Lone Man in a Taqueria.

“My message would be to take off the fake crown. It will cost you more to keep it than to let it go. It is not real. It is just a marker of your programming. You will be happier and freer without it. You will see all of humanity. You will find your true self.” ~ Isabel Wilkerson, Caste


I’m seated on a red bench in Sacramento’s Fremont Park, reading a book and drinking a nearly-finished smoothie.

An empty fountain sits before me, white and carved from stone. No water flows from it, but a single squirrel has converted it into his temporary playground.

For a while, as I focus on my book, the squirrel simply fades into the backdrop, becoming but one element of the various surrounding stimuli.

After a while though, something about the way this creature moves commands my attention. I watch as he hugs the acorn to his chest. I watch as he drops it. I continue to watch as he skitters to the other side of the fountain, in typical stop-motion squirrel fashion.

Beneath the shade of a nearby tree, he continues honing his identity. I imagine what it would be like if this were all he ever did. Most other squirrels are out building homes for their families, collecting acorns, doing all the typical squirrel things that squirrels do in order to survive.

What if this squirrel, though, could not be bothered with such banalities? What if they just weren’t his thing? Maybe his purpose in life was to demonstrate just how unlike other squirrels he was.

He looks right at me as I write that. I imagined him proclaiming:

“I am not like all squirrels. I am not like most squirrels. My behavior reflects an individual, not a group. Please depict my uniqueness.”

I look back at him as if to communicate (with my eyes), “I’ll take your concerns into account.”

Maybe that consciousness alone was more sustaining than any home or edible nourishment could ever be. I just wondered how long it could last. I wondered what would happen when he needed food or company—or he realized his individuality alone could no longer propel him indefinitely.

Weeks later in Mexico City, I sipped coffee from the ninth floor of the Sears Tower with an incredible view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes before me. Beautiful and majestic, the impeccable structure lit up nearly my entire line of vision.

A day later, I ascended to the 45th floor of the Torre Latinoamericana—the tallest building in Mexico City, famous for its panoramic views.

High up on the lookout deck, the breeze blew strands of hair into my face while the people on the streets below moved about like colorful ants. The Palacio de Bellas Artes gleamed like an ornate shoebox that could be picked up with two hands—no longer occupying all of my vision.

It occurred to me that from this vantage point, the palace didn’t look as pretty; it had lost some of its elegance. When eye-level with it, I’d been subject to its majesticness. I’d gazed at it in awe. Now I looked down on it from a place of slight superiority.

Up here, others are reduced to microscopic pawns in your line of vision. Their features inscrutable—it’s easier to objectify them. With the world around you reduced to your play-board, you begin feeling like it’s all within your reach, therefore manipulable. 

Life thrums below, but none of it can hurt you. The honks, the shouts, the sirens—all are muted, distant. High up in your tower, you’re untouchable.

Down there, you’re not. Life and all its thrumming can and does cause pain. You can’t manipulate all that’s around you. You can’t block out the sirens and the shouts and the honks. They pierce through your shield. They feel intimately close. 

And yet the longer I remained up there, the more I also felt another sensation creep in: eerie loneliness. It’s the kind that those high up in the tower might feel guilty for experiencing because they know they should be grateful. The audacity of them—to want even more, when they’re already above it all.

Weeks later still, I spot a young man seated alone at a crowded taqueria, with a table all to himself. His papers and cups of salsa are spread out across its vast surface. He has been there for many hours (I came in earlier to use the bathroom and he was there. I came back a few hours later to eat, and there he was, still).

Meanwhile, the restaurant thrums with business. Some people are even sitting on the floor.

Does he have blinders on? I wonder. Or does he just not care?

I want the man to leave his body for a minute and float to the top of the ceiling and look down on himself, then witness the bizarreness of the sight—him alone with all that space, spreading his belongings across the table, more salsa than any one person could ever need and more plastic than the Earth should ever have to withstand.

To all the people this man represents: I want the servers to ladle a warm spoonful of empathy onto their enchiladas, so potent it it sets their hearts on fire, waking them and spurring them to action.

When the table to his left opens up—smaller, abutting the wall, and designed for two—I want him to move.

“I didn’t need all that space,” maybe he’d realize.

I want that all to happen.

I’m not sure it ever will.

The rich are getting richer, while the poor are just barely holding on. 

This man is metaphorically atop the tower, refusing to come down. He is the squirrel in the previous scenario. He is the human island protected from the swirling currents of human connection and hardship and need.

He makes me think about how some of us find safety in heightened focus on our individuality, even though it keeps us separate.

When you’re above everyone, you’re separate from them. To connect requires coming back down. It requires us to unpeel those protective layers and stand more revealed.

I wonder when he’ll get lonely. 

Here’s the thing about “down there.”

I want to be down there, even knowing that it’s where the world can hurt me.

I want the capacity, when people pass me by, to take in chestnut-colored eyes, a prominent nose, a little girl dressed in blue and yellow striped tights, a French bulldog chasing a teal rubber ball with Frida Kahlo’s face on it.  

I want to stand in awe of a beautiful palace and maintain awareness of my humble place in relation to it. 

I want to know pain, endure discomfort, withstand inconvenience, so that I can, in return, experience connection.

I want to acknowledge to myself that as rattling as the sirens may be, they’re as part of the deal as the rest of it.

I will remind myself of this every time life gets hard (which it will)—far more often than any of us would like. Yet when the alternative is coldness and separation, I see no other way forward but through.

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