Why do we crave—to the point where it causes physical stress—a witness? Why do we want to walk side-by-side with another person, preferably one perceived as an equal partner, as an intimate witness to our lives, twenty-four hours a day? We don’t want to be alone—isolation has been shown to be emotionally and physically damaging—we want a sympathetic witness: an impartial but understanding reflection of our view.
It’s almost like we want an external conscience—a breathing, walking, friendly, supportive, even sexual presence. I see this craving in myself and in others, and I see how hard it drives us, often to outrageous lengths. Look at people who become stars. How hard they work just to ensure they always have interested companions!
I think we are deeply insecure about our reality. “Do I really exist? Do I exist the way I see myself, or is that just something I’m creating?” Well, yes and no. According to the Buddha, there are dhammas and adhammas, real things and unreal things, in our experience. There is actual reality (dhamma), and then adhamma is a false consensus reality built on top of it.
We get confused and doubtful about what is reality—phenomena, dhamma—and what is adhamma: fabrication, artificial human consensus or conventional reality. And we want somebody to help us sort it out!
But actually we are the only witness who sees all the things that we see. Nobody else can experience our life from the inside, nor can we experience theirs. So what are we doing? Just searching for illusory pacification?
Having another person around allows us to say, “I’ve been witnessed. I’m real!” Just like the sine qua non of western scientific empiricism is if somebody else can duplicate your experiment. We want our reality to be supported by popular vote; and the more people that agree with our reality, the more famous and well-liked we are, that is our Social Reality Score. It’s like high school, it’s immature. And people are willing to struggle very hard, and do almost anything to earn that cachet.
However this observation still doesn’t answer the question, “Why do we get lonely?” We get lonely because we are craving that person, the fair witness. Being alone is stressor, and it has been shown to have effects similar to other stressors on people’s health. Why can’t we face being alone? What is there about being alone that is so difficult, so hard on us?
It has to be that we doubt our own existence, or how we perceive or evaluate our own existence. We doubt our ontology. Why? Because we’ve been wrong so many times about so many different things. We want people to support our opinions.
Remember that old Bob Dylan song, “It ain’t me Babe”? You want me to tell you that you’re right, even when you’re wrong? Uh-uh, that’s not me. You want somebody who’s always going to be there for you, and never disagree with you? Forget it; that’s not me, Babe. Why? Because nobody else is going to see the world from the same point of view as you.
This is hell of the witness. The witness is the companion, the intimate friend. But the witness is also judge and jury, because he’s a proxy for our conscience. So the witness, the friend, becomes the hell because he doesn’t see from the same point of view, he doesn’t know the same things as you do, and he doesn’t always agree.
The degree of authority that we give to our companions is also the degree to which they can hurt us. They can betray our trust, or what we perceive as our trust in them: we expect them to always tell us we’re right, we’re OK, and maybe they’re not going to do that. We become dependent on their judgment to the degree that we rely on their guidance to know how we’re doing, our situational awareness.
The witness or companion is the touchstone of our situational awareness: “Hey buddy, check this out. Is this really the way it is?” The more social we are, the more we measure how we’re doing in any situation by the group’s opinion. And of course, groups are always aberrated and biased because they are fabrications, abstractions that lead to groupthink.
Cognitive bias studies have shown that what people think that other people are going to think influences their opinion. We’re running a simulation, trying to predict how others, this group of whimsical, indeterminate people are going to respond to a situation or question. This guesswork influences our response because we are taking situational awareness input from the group consensus.
This is how consensus reality gets started. “I think that you are going to think such-and-such, so I’ll adjust my thinking to anticipate yours, because I don’t want you to abandon me. So I adjust my thoughts and behavior to harmonize with what I anticipate your thoughts and behavior are going to be.” But when we find out eventually that the other person’s thoughts are not what we anticipated, or what we expected is not what they did, then we know we got it wrong. So we doubt our reality and seek even more confirmation from external sources.
What a conundrum. I’m insecure in my own reality, so I recruit a buddy, a companion, a friend, a witness to reinforce my situational awareness, my ontology. And by doing this, I’m setting myself up for the inevitable betrayal, when I find out that my idea of their idea is wrong. The existential human condition is such a tragic state, one must either laugh or cry, but one cannot remain neutral. One must feel compassion for all of us weak, deluded humans.
How do we untangle this knot? This is in the category of those difficult, even unanswerable questions the Existentialists insisted upon asking, if only to throw light on the extremity of the human condition. The answer is a paradox, a moebus strip that can’t be unfolded without access to some higher dimension. The Existentialists were willing to see that the question is one thing that yet has two irreconcilable sides.
For this reason, the knot can’t be untied from the inside. If your consciousness or world view exists in a context of meaning that needs an external witness as a necessity, then it is also at risk of being demolished at any time by that witness. This is the reason why we’re afraid to be alone, and yet we’re afraid to risk everything in deep relationships. And it is also the reason why nobody can or should judge others—because nobody else really knows, nobody else really sees, nobody else experiences life from the same point of view as you.