intimacy versus isolation

Due to quarantine, I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading, watching, and listening to stories in a way I haven’t since my teens. As everyone now understands, isolation is not a state we are coded for. We are social creatures wired for connection and bonding, and in the COVID landscape, we’re seeing massive changes occur across all spheres of life. Gatherings are no longer safe. We’re adapting to living separately, yet still connected, and it puts me in mind of a particular stage of human development.

Erik Erikson proposed a theory of psychosocial stages where our primary challenge is how we orient ourselves in accordance with society. Trust versus mistrust in infancy, autonomy versus shame in our toddler years, initiative versus guilt in childhood, and so on, until we reach the crisis of intimacy or isolation roughly situated between the ages of 18-40. How we’ve overcome those crises and what paths we’ve chosen largely shape how we will–or won’t–connect with others. And now, with all of us forced into this crisis together, struggling to find ways to safely connect, it appears as a strange take on Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is, similarly, another approach to attachment. Do we risk the pain that comes with trying to get close to others, or do we remain alone in the cold? We need warmth, we need connection, we need each other, but unless we find a way to connect safely, without wounding each other, the primary lesson is one of pain.

During quarantine, I’ve found this theme over and over in the stories I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched, the podcasts I’ve listened to. It makes me wonder about how truly aware we are of how difficult it can be to connect, and why it seems so much more difficult as one grows older. And the more a person is unable to connect, fails to connect, the more daunting the challenge becomes.

Recently, my partner and I rewatched Hannibal, and I sat up when my second watch revealed this theme again. Because this is the driving motivation for the titular character, much as he makes it appear he is in control. Even a cunning, manipulative serial killer longs to be understood, to have a family, to have one person who truly knows him. Even that. It stunned me to realize I had not seen that theme before, and my thoughts turned toward how it’s handled in other stories.

Intimacy is something of a misnomer, for most, because the association that most commonly comes to mind is sexual intimacy. But intimacy is merely a state of closeness and trust, where one learns to safely lean on others and find themselves trusted and loved in return. It can be a familial closeness–the older brother who has your back no matter what, the mother who you can tell anything, the sister whose wisdom is always there for you. It can be deep friendship, the kind of friendship where you know it’s all right if your kitchen’s a mess and you look like a wreck when they arrive; hell, they’ve come with their sleeves rolled up and a hot coffee, smiling warmly as they say “hey, friend, let’s get you cheered up.”

Intimacy is a state between people where trust can be built or shattered into pieces. Nowhere is this state put into such concrete terms as Neon Genesis Evangelion. The barrier between people is a real, physical thing–an “Absolute Terror” field that protects just as much as it separates. And when it disappears in End of Evangelion and all of humanity exists as one whole, it is a seemingly strange thing that Shinji rejects this closeness for pain. Because even as painful as it is to try to reach others, losing all sense of self and purpose negates the need for closeness at all.

Why choose that pain? If we could be perfectly understood, find that we will never be alone again, is that not a preferred state?

Who would choose isolation, unless they had no choice?

This is a concept I found in my own writing while working on revisions, and I saw what my twenty-six year-old self did not understand. I couldn’t, because I had not truly faced it, much as I thought I had. I had lost, but nowhere near as much as I have at 34, and now, the choice of intimacy versus isolation is utterly daunting.

I still have my family, my partner, a handful of friends. But the loss of my best friend to cancer and the life I’d thought I’d have was a truly isolating thing. I feared connection, because I feared the inevitability of loss, and losing, and it’s taken a long time to understand the wisdom of something Pru told me three years ago.

“Stay soft.”

I was fresh out of the hospital, and I didn’t want to talk about the particulars of why I’d been there, not even to my best friend. It was enough to say that I’d been bad off and not thinking straight, that I’d come a little too close to my wit’s end for comfort. But they knew. They knew the way they’d known when they took the call a week before and coaxed me to come sit with them at a coffee bar, just so I wouldn’t be alone. They knew enough to make me promise that if I found myself at the edge again, I’d go to the hospital before I went anywhere else, and that is what I did. They knew why. They didn’t need to know the details. We were close enough that they understood, and they told me a thing I couldn’t understand at the time.

“The world will hurt you. It will try to harden you and make you bitter. Don’t let it win. Stay soft.”

I’d like to be soft.

I’d like to be trusting and willing and able to embrace connection with open arms. But a strange thing happens, when that connection starts to open up. I can speak from my heart and tell people I love them, offer bits of myself for no reason at all, other than because I care. And…at this point, I have nothing to lose. I want to sit in someone’s kitchen again, talking about everything and nothing, laughing together, hugging each other too hard every time we meet.

But I see the end unfold before me, and the question of how am I going to lose you becomes all I see.

It isn’t concern about mistrust or betrayal, like it used to be. It isn’t about potential abandonment, or the slow, sad disconnection of growing apart. It’s the feeling of standing in front of an animal shelter when your eyes fill up, your chest constricts, and you walk back to your car, because you’re not ready yet. You’re still reeling from the last loss, and you remember the way your hand went still on a beloved pet’s back as the breath left them forever. And no logical understanding can erase the knowledge that one day, you may have to make that choice again.

One day, I will hold hands again, right before I must let them go forever.

It’s a strange thing, seeing the world isolated the same way I am, even if for different reasons. The fears of sickness and death that plague society are not so different from my fear of connection. Because I know and remember the sort of closeness that sustains you in what would be a killing frost.

But memories are not enough to keep you warm through the winter, and it simply is not possible to go through life alone.

I have people close to me. People who know me often better than I know myself. They give me space and room to think, and ask me to open a door when I start building walls. They patiently wait for me to invite them in, to make the choice to connect and prove to myself that that is easier to do than wait on a useless expectation for someone to scale my walls.

I know myself. The walls are here because inside them, I am still soft, and I am afraid of pain. If I can’t bring them down, if I can’t bring myself to venture past them, the least I can do is build a door and try to let people in.

It’s a faltering thing. I don’t want to lose myself in my connection to others so much that losing them feels like losing myself. It’s been a slow process of feeling out my own identity past a role, my own identity past how I am defined by other people, and simply try my damndest to be myself.

But that isn’t enough.

You have to risk it.

You have to make the decision to risk the pain and refuse isolation.

You have to accept that you don’t know how it ends.

I listened to a podcast that many had warned didn’t have a true ending, but it did. The conclusion was stunningly simple to me. To accept not knowing like everyone else, to be alone in your head like everyone else—to know that the only way toward connection is to be present and open to others–god, that hit like a punch to the stomach. I don’t want to spoil Limetown any more than that because it was well worth the listen, and I’m glad I took that risk.

I don’t quite understand yet how I want to handle this theme going forward in my writing. I know how I want to resolve my own struggle with it. I choose intimacy over isolation, but the isolation persists. I keep finding myself looking for the person who could take Pru’s place, but I already know no one can take the place of someone else. You build new rooms in your heart for different people, and unlike real estate, that room is an endless resource. You simply have to be willing to build and invite them in.

I could choose to populate the house of myself with endless ghosts, but I’ve already done that.

And whenever the societal landscape settles, I think my approach to it is starting to change.

Still, I keep finding myself asking, how does everyone else choose?

How do you let people in?

Do you simply invite yourself and take up space?

Do you just sit at the table, start a conversation, no matter where it goes?

How do I let you in?

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