Sunday, February 15, 2009

To Be Not Alone

A line that stays with me (recited by, of all people, Drew Barrymore, in, of all movies, “Lucky You”) is "You know what I think? I think we’re all just trying not to be lonely." At first glance Japan might seem to refute this. Social interaction here is not what it is in the West, and is not focused on the same goals. My first Japanese friend, who was studying in my University in California, told me that she’d come to America with the assumption –shared by many whose impression of Americans is shaped purely by the image that America exports – that Americans are fiercely independent, self-sufficient, and, in general, strong in themselves. It was only a matter of days before she was confronted with the sights of American college life, dominated by sororities and fraternities, nightly parties filled with strangers, a dating scene characterized by “it’s probably not going anywhere, but it’s better than being alone,” and the omnipresent hum of the mantra “thy shall not eat alone, study alone, play alone, or sleep alone. If thou dost, thou art a looser.” My friend’s ideas about American independence were crushed in light of the obvious dependence on the group for definition and significance, especially when compared to the quiet Japanese willingness to suppress the individual needs and feelings in favor of conforming to the collectively-selected “norm”. While many Westerners would truly be unable to maintain mental health if they did not have a least a couple friends with whom they could really “be themselves,” many Japanese still operate under the principle that the deepest core of one’s self is something to never be shown, to anyone, not ever. And oftentimes they never do, something the average American (like myself) finds unfathomable, in a very literal way. The difference is that in the West people look to others to be recognized and actualized as individuals; in Japan it is to be accepted and incorporated into the group. Both, however, are driven by the fear of being alone. In terms of needing the affirmation of the group, the Japanese can seem greatly more self-sufficient than Westerners, but they are just as likely to go to any lengths to avoid being alone. I see it in the way my Jr. High school boys all sit in each other’s laps and the girls waddle around the halls entangled in group hugs (no joke) and in the way that my colleagues and supervisors arrange my schedule so that I’m never unattended (which strangely does not strike me as supervision, just a mind-set that a person shouldn’t be alone, which explains the fact that never being alone here does not make me feel socialized, but rather provokes that most dreaded sense of being alone in a crowd). When I do manage to get off to a quiet corner for a breather there’s a kind of quiet confusion radiating from the group over my behavior. What really strikes me is how extraordinarily polarized the rules of operation can be in a society, and yet it all comes around to at least one of the same things: people don’t want to be alone. The question I have to ask next, then, is “why?” What do we sense deep within our (perhaps truest) selves that propels us to the arms of company that often demeans or diminishes our dignity as individuals, to fill the silence with the white noise of mindless “entertainment,” or to distort or mask our character, all to avoid coming face to face with ourselves? Whether it’s worth it or not, either way it frightens me.

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