The Most Personal is also Universal
by John Schneider
Henry Nouwen, in his book, Reaching Out, challenges us to consider that "what is most universal is most personal and indeed nothing human is strange to us". It is paradoxical that our vulnerability, our deepest innermost thoughts and feelings, those which we fear are signs of our craziness, aloneness, utter alienation from the world around us can actually be common and shared.
There are times, particularly in the years prior to mid-life awareness, when it is our desire to find ways we are unique, separate, different, seekers of identities distinct from our parents or anyone else. We may believe meaning for our existence depends on finding that uniqueness. We may go to any ends, however trivial, to find differences. We may deny our connectiveness, our commonalities, our vulnerabilities and demons in order to create an illusion of eccentricity, a personal version of immortality - a life that is obviously distinct. The notion that what is most personal is also universal is abhorrent.
We can also feel unique by virtue of the losses we experience. We know no one who has experienced the kind of pain, isolation or loss of meaning in life that we have encountered. As we seek answers to the question of what we have lost, we may be convinced we have lost everything and everyone, including ourselves, our capacity to hope and to love. The notion that our personal loss is also a universal condition can be incomprehensible at such times.
Uniqueness can become a path to isolation and fear. We may feel so singular we believe no one could possibly know pain, grief and loneliness the way we do. Only those with life experiences identical to our own, our reasoning goes, could possibly know what we are going through.
If we were truly unique, no one could meet that criterion. We'd then experience a deeper loneliness than we have ever known - a Midas touch result of our wish for separateness.
Such loneliness could also be a consequence of fully experiencing what we have lost, that we need, for a time, to deny our commonalities and connections. Whether by achieving separateness or by living fully in our grief, we then discover the attachments that are missing. Loneliness, as Clark Moustakas observed, is missing a part of ourselves - the part that loves and connects.
When loneliness is experienced without love, mortality becomes a palpable choice. Pain no longer represents a sign of incompetence, sinfulness or imbalance. No meaningful loss is disenfranchised. We face the worst. The fear subsides. Our yearning for uniqueness shifts. We have a choice - to let go of life or change it.
To change, we'll need to discover what is left. Such discovery involves the risk of sharing our story. When we take the risk of sharing our life story, what is it that we risk? We chance the rejection, invalidation or ignoring of our story. Perhaps we risk being seen as different, unusual, so strange and foreign to the listeners that they cannot relate to us.
We'll also hazard discovering our common soul - and the consequences of honoring its existence. We'll discover we all grieve as the price of being connected, experience shame and humility as the cost of seeking uniqueness, pain as the consequence of living fully, loneliness as the intimate companion of love. What we have left can be more encompassing than we dreamed possible.
The paradoxical shift that grief and mid-life bring is that our life's meaning comes not only in what makes us different, but in what connects us. As long as we have to be unique or hide our vulnerabilities and losses, we will miss hearing the wisdom of the ages and the inspiration of the spiritual universe. We'll lose opportunities to discover that creative living is the essence of our collective and communal humanity or that solitude is the soul's way of reaching out to the universe. Grieving to answer "what is possible?" helps us celebrate that what is most personal is also most universal.