“Loneliness is the suffering of our time.

Thich Nhat Hanh



British Modernism, which arose at the very beginning of the twentieth century, is marked by pessimism, alienation, and existential loneliness—that feeling that you are completely alone even when surrounded by people because no one can ever truly understand you nor you them. It’s pretty glum.

The Modernists were understandably grim given the time period. They were responding to a crumbling empire and to World War I in their writing. It was a time of great disruption that changed not only society but how people understood the world.

James Joyce’s 1914 Dubliners collection of short stories embodies all of the Modernist themes. The story that best captures the theme of existential loneliness is the last in the collection: “The Dead.”

The protagonist of “The Dead” is Gabriel. The setting appears cheerful—an annual party held by Gabriel’s aunts.

Gabriel, however, is anxious. He is to give a speech to start the dinner, and he is in agony over it, afraid that the guests will not understand his allusions. Gabriel stands outside the main action of the party when he arrives, thinking of his fellow partygoers that, “their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail . . . He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.” From the start, Gabriel feels himself apart from others and physically distances himself while mentally creating a bigger chasm between himself and everyone else.

This continues during the party, most significantly at the meal itself. His speech is met with applause but goes over the heads of his aunts whom he is attempting to honor with his classical references. He then settles in to carve the goose. A shared meal symbolizes community and connection, but Gabriel does not eat with the others. Rather, feeling “quite at ease now for he was an expert carver,” Gabriel offers first and then second helpings to everyone, not serving himself until the other guests insist, at which point he “set to his supper and took no part in the conversation.”

And when the dessert is served, Gabriel eats celery. No offense to celery lovers, but certainly his partaking of a fairly tasteless vegetable rather than a lush dessert with everyone else also separates Gabriel.

When Gabriel and his wife are alone at the end of the evening, his complete detachment reaches a climax. Wanting desperately to be passionate and loving with his wife but feeling unable to express this, he instead becomes jealous as she tells Gabriel about a long-dead boyfriend whom she had known before meeting him.

This is an intimate moment as Gretta is being emotionally vulnerable with her husband. But Gabriel, “trembling with annoyance”, hears her memories as personal rejection instead. He is thrown into an unjustified sense of self doubt: “While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror.”

Gabriel never shares with his lifelong companion his nervousness over the speech, his feelings of awkwardness at the party that make him seek isolation, his feelings of passion for her, or his pain when hearing about the long-dead boyfriend of her youth.

Rather than connect and communicate, Gabriel fixates on self-presentation—the man in the mirror—leaving him existentially lonely.

The Dalai Lama has shared that he avoids social anxiety by remembering that each of us is connected, each simply a human wishing for (and deserving) happiness. He does not worry about failing, noting that if we make mistakes but with good intentions, it merely means we were not up to the task.

If loneliness is the suffering of our time, it’s a choice when it comes to the existential version. Be understood by allowing those you love to understand you rather than fixating on the image in the mirror.


Photo provided by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash





“If you get satisfaction, you don’t want any more, right?

Robert Wright



The Buddha was not speaking English in the talk he gave laying out the Four Noble Truths. This means we are relying on translations to get at the truth of the First Noble Truth, usually translated as life contains suffering.

Buddhist scriptures are written in either Sanskrit or Pali. In Sanskrit, the word most often translated as suffering is spelled Duhkha and in Pali Dukkha.

However, in his online course, “Buddhism and Modern Psychology,” Robert Wright explains that we might find a different translation makes more sense, pointing to the song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones as best expressing what the Buddha may have been getting at.

It’s not that we are constantly suffering (thank goodness) but that there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that hums underneath all that we do. Even as we enjoy what we love most, there’s the knowledge that the pleasure we are experiencing is temporary. We always want more.

Basically, we are all versions of the Alexander Hamilton created by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.

Key characters in the play attempt to teach the “young, scrappy, and hungry” Hamilton to be satisfied.

When he returns against his will from the battlefield to his pregnant wife Eliza, she talks to him about appreciating what they have, about seeing they have “enough.” She tells him they are lucky “to be alive right now.” She wants him to know, “So long as you come home at the end of the day, that would be enough.”

But, of course, Hamilton is not satisfied.

Later, President George Washington will take a shot at teaching Hamilton about being satisfied with enough when he asks Hamilton to write his farewell address. As Hamilton urges Washington to stay in office, Washington responds, “I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree a moment alone in the shade at home in this nation we’ve made.”

Washington acknowledges that he’s done his job, and now he must “teach them how to say goodbye” passing the baton onto the next president. He is satisfied that he has done enough and has earned a rest.

Hamilton, though, seems temperamentally prone to dissatisfaction with his constant chatter, reading, writing, and plotting. Miranda doesn’t leave us guessing at this, devoting more than one song to the theme.

Upon meeting his future sister-in-law, Hamilton says to her:

“You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.”

. . .

“You’re like me. I’m never satisfied.”

. . .

“I have never been satisfied.” 

It’s not straightforward. Hamilton should not be satisfied with the childhood he experienced nor the oppression by the British nor the enslavement of fellow humans. He is right to vow, “I am not throwing away my shot.” As he and his young fellow revolutionaries proclaim, “When you’re living on your knees, rise up.” Do not be satisfied.

But Hamilton’s egocentric concentration on his own satisfaction—his determination to leave a legacy—means he will never be satisfied and, therefore, will not get past the First Noble Truth, which leads to heartbreak, betrayal, anger, ignominy, and death.

Hamilton and his friends sing before the Revolution, “Raise a glass to freedom, something they can never take away.” Alas, our physical freedom can be taken away. But the Second, Third, and Fourth Noble Truths teach us that we can be freed from suffering or, if you prefer, dissatisfaction.

We can act against injustice yet be satisfied within, bringing to the battle our own inner sense of peace and the understanding that we are enough.



Photo provided by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash