alone together

I SHOULD JOT down a few notes here about being back in Estonia and the funny little things I notice now and then. I have long since moved beyond the general observations (“The people are reserved,” “the weather is frightening”) and shifted into more deeply grasping at who the Estonians are and how they see themselves. A line from Jaan Tätte’s new book Vaikuse Hääl (“The Sound of Silence” — not sure if it has anything to do with Simon & Garfunkel) sticks with me.

Tätte’s message was that you are always alone, you were born alone, will die alone, and even if you are living well with your spouse for 50 years in the countryside and waking up to pancakes with jam (or syrup, if you are from the Western Hemisphere) and hot kisses on your cheeks you may be two people who are living together … but you are still alone.

This is not the most unique thought, though it’s interesting to hear it again, and so poetically. Aldous Huxley said the same in The Doors of Perception. I differ not in opinion but in perspective. Jaan Tätte sees an old couple as two individuals who live together but are still alone. I might see an old couple as two individuals who have chosen not to be alone, but to stay together. To narrow in on this lonesomeness is to miss part of the larger picture of togetherness.

Yet I think Tätte’s perspective is quite Estonian. It’s the mentality of independent people who have lived for centuries with plenty of space around them, relying on their own wits. In Estonia, mina (I) comes before sina (you, singular), teie (you, plural), and most of all meie (we). An Estonian might even argue that there is no meie, and that there is only mina ja sina, or even — more coldly — mina ja teie. A family of five may be recognized as a family by society, but a person with this perspective would only seen five highly differentiated individuals who are living together, but are still so very alone.

This is true to some extent. When a family member dies, the others go on with their lives. And yet the family entity is never the same again. Anyone who has lost a family member knows this. That member of the family dies, alone, and yet none of the other members of the family are ever the same. How often have we heard, “If so-and-so had lived, things would have been different”? And yet it’s so true! Maybe Uncle Sven wouldn’t have become a drunk. Maybe Grandma Aune might not be living in poverty. Maybe Aunt Ester would have finished college and not gotten pregnant at age 19. If only Grandfather Jaak had lived!

The direction of all of these people’s lives were changed by the mere removal of one other singular lone particle of a ruggedly individualistic individual. So, yes, Jaan Tätte, Aldous Huxley, we are all alone, even when we are together. But we do impact each others’ lives. And so long as there are other beings on this earth with whom we interact, we never can be truly alone.

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