Is Life a Solo Journey? Part One

A few weeks ago, I had dinner with John, a friend of mine in California in his mid-60s who is grieving the loss of his wife from cancer. John was struggling to manage his grief, not an easy task at any time, and especially not during the social isolation of the pandemic. He told me he had recently spoken with a retired friend of his, who told him, “Life is a solo journey.”  

“What do you think of that?” he asked me, knowing I do research on loneliness

Riding Solo? 

The words of John’s friend reminded me of what I used to tell people when I was a graduate student in my mid-20s: “We enter this world alone and we will leave it alone.” Influenced by the trauma I experienced from my parent’s divorce and its aftermath, including a physically abusive step-father, that statement made a lot of sense to me at the time. 

I don’t believe it anymore. 

Why? To explain how my view has changed, let’s first take a look at how we entered this world. Then, in the next part of this article, let’s consider how we will leave it. 

How We Arrived Here 

To subscribe to the belief that we entered this world alone is to forget one minor detail. We only exist in the first place thanks to the greatest sacrifice one human being can make for another: to birth them. Another human being has undergone untold physical, psychological and emotional duress, initially for nine months—replete with unprecedented levels of daily pain that anyone who has not gone through this process, including myself, cannot even begin to fathom—to accompany us on the first part of our journey. 

These sacrifices don’t end when we are born. Consider this account from science writer Lydia Denworth in her book Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond:  

Before he could have his [closest] friend Christian, my son Jake had to have me—and his father, and some loving babysitters—but, in his case, mostly me. He and I spent our days together. For the first few weeks that meant that he lay on my chest in the living room of our London apartment … Later, after we moved back to Brooklyn, we dug in the sandbox of the playground, put puzzles together, and chatted … We spent our nights together too, or at least it felt like it in the early months when we were up every few hours, nursing and rocking … In each of these interactions, even the exhausted ones, when I smiled at Jake and he eventually smiled back, when I talked to him and he eventually talked back, when I laughed and he eventually laughed back, and when I cried and he stared at me and tried to work out what was going on with Mommy, he was honing the early social skills on which his later friendships would depend.

I hope this puts to rest the idea that we come into this world alone.  

“Not so fast, Mr. Jump-to-Conclusions Author,” you may be thinking. “My parents were not as doting and attentive as Jake’s; they taught me through their neglect and abandonment that life really is a solo journey.” 

Hmmm. Let’s come back to what you have shared in a later part of this article, after we consider whether we leave this world alone.