“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






“Because our perception is ‘stained’ by our emotions, memories, views, and knowledge, we cannot touch the true nature of what we observe.

Thich Nhat Hanh



Within the tradition of Buddhism are bodhisattvas: those who seek enlightenment for the sake of all. A bodhisattva consciously aspires to awaken bodhicitta, the “mind of love,” ready to accept pleasure or pain with equanimity with the goal of bringing happiness to other beings.

While all of us have the ability to be bodhisattvas, within the Buddhist tradition, particular bodhisattvas are held up as examples. One bodhisattva with whom Westerners may be familiar is Kuan Yin whose name literally translates to observer of  sounds.

To be bodhisattvas, therefore, we must also be observers: of others in order to offer compassion and, as a foundation, to our own feelings and thoughts so that we may observe correctly.

Jane Austen understood this. Throughout all of her fiction, characters wreak havoc through their lack of observation. Elizabeth Bennet fails to see that Darcy is falling in love with her. No one but Fanny Price notices the inappropriate and ultimately dangerous flirting of Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram. And Emma fails to observe, well, pretty much everything.

Within the novel Emma, though, we do find a model observer—who ultimately also demonstrates the difficulty of mindful observation: Mr. Knightley.

While Emma  receives adulation from all around her, Mr. Knightley recognizes that Emma has faults and makes mistakes that, in a sort of anti-bodhisattva fashion, are bound to make others unhappy.

When Mr. Knightley realizes that Emma’s matchmaking scheme for her friend Harriet will ruin Harriet’s chances with a kind, genuine man who wishes to marry her, he scolds Emma soundly, noting the problem of skewed observation. He tells Emma, “your infatuation about that girl blinds you.”

Using his powers of observation, Mr. Knightley warns Emma off of her matchmaking scheme for Harriet with Mr. Elton: “from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away.” Mr. Elton plans to marry well, not to someone of Harriet’s rank. Mr. Knightley knows this through his careful listening.

He also uses his observations to the benefit of others, for Mr. Knightley’s telling Emma about her rude behavior toward someone of lower social status awakens compassion and observation within Emma.

But even Mr. Knightley misses in his observations when led by his feelings. Like all in town, he is duped by the secretly engaged couple, for Knightley is blinded by his own jealousy.

Convinced that Frank Churchill is wooing Emma and that she is willingly accepting his attentions, Mr. Knightley fails to see that Frank is merely using Emma as a shield to hide his true feelings for another young lady. Mr. Knightley also misreads Emma, who plays with the idea of being in love with Frank, but she never has any real affection for him beyond a superficial friendship.

Overwhelmed by his jealousy after Frank is particularly flirtatious with Emma, Mr. Knightley runs off to London, returning home hurriedly in the rain when he learns of Frank’s engagement to another. Expecting to find a disconsolate Emma, he goes to comfort her.

Our narrator tells us, “He had found her agitated and low.—Frank Churchill was a villain.—He heard her declare that she had never loved him [Frank]. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate.—She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned into the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill then, he might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.”

Even one of Austen’s most observant characters loses those powers of observation when caught by his own story.

As Austen wrote in her novel Persuasion, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!” In this case, how quickly we see things when that is what we expect to see.

Instead, like Austen, let us observe with clarity and, like Kuan Yin, with compassion.


Photo provided by Kathryn Duncan