I have always thought that finding your way in life was a solo enterprise. Any development I have made so far has constituted a series of small personal steps taken alone, with the guidance of my therapist. It has been so very individualistic, cocooned in a small office one-on-one, dragging myself through painful realisations about my past and my entangled inner machinations. Without doubt it has been invaluable and I don’t consider it an overstatement to say I am not convinced I would have survived thus far without it. There have been long periods of hopelessness, where all I have had left is to grope for his hand in the darkness and trust the voice of another telling me a new dawn may break one day. But beyond this vital relationship I have felt largely alone, sharing little but headlines of the process with my closest friends.
I do not appear to be alone in this. As a man I think I’m more open than most, and I don’t shy from revealing the more unsavoury truths. This extends to my tightest circle of friends, warm and embracing men and women all of them. But still our professional lives have seen us flung to all corners of the globe, or embattled in our own career trajectories. Even for the many of us that stayed in London, pressures of the urban landscape meant meeting up more than once a month often proved a struggle, and then the conversation was dominated simply by ‘catching up’, which meant whittling down a universe of rough-edged experience to a minaret. I remember when my oldest and closest friend told me one time he had been so plagued by his own demons that he sat on the street in Shepherd’s Bush and wept, so certain was he that suicide was the only way to short circuit the lightening storm in his head. He told me some months later. He had not thought to call.
We seem to live in our Western urban society as diffused particles of gas, bouncing off each other in random, unchartable directions, forever spilling out to fill the area allotted us. Coming to the East I imagined this legacy of solo travelling would continue. I pictured lazy hours spent in hammocks, mulling over Buddhist texts, scribbling snatches of illumination or incoherence into my journal. But the reality has been quite different so far. I have felt embraced by this culture, drawn into its arms and given a place to belong. Having escaped from the tourist web of Thailand my experiences have deepened and spread outwards. Long hours spent in the home of local people, sharing beers and smiles, has settled my restless soul with incredible speed. If I can feel a part of such strong community bonds in a day or two, and from it a fairly rare sense of well-being, imagine what a lifetime spent in such a nest does for the soul?
It raises a series of questions for me about the East and the West. What if this yearning to stand on our own two feet – this belief that we need to become a robust self-sufficient unit against the turmoils of the world – what if that is wrong-headed? Somehow inherently unhealthy and contrary to whatever our human nature might be? What if this self-reliance leads only to loneliness and a paucity of spirit, so often cited as the biggest problem facing the West?
I have often thought that one offshoot of this issue is the vast pressures it places on our romantic partners. Countless times I’ve sensed that people use this relationship, and this relationship alone as the conduit for a lifetime of frustrations and confusions. We broadcast our successes widely, but our failures are most often reserved for the bedroom. So is it any wonder that fissures start to appear under such an immense responsibility? That our divorce rates have rocketed to %50? For what single person can shoulder the burdens of another, especially when that other is also the person we have designated to shoulder our own? But our media driven obsession in this quest for ‘true love’, for perfect harmony found only in our couple continues. ‘When will I find the ‘one’?’ seems to have almost biblical, or perhaps more Yoda-like overtones. It reminds me of the motif someone described to me recently of a heart cracked in half, bonded seamlessly with another cracked heart to at last become whole again. This was upheld to me as a romantic ideal, but is it not more likely that two cracked hearts meeting will just fuck each other up completely? For what, realistically, are the chances of an alignment? Try as you might, you can’t fix a cracked vase with pieces from another one; they have to all come from the original. Generally it is unwise to bring ourselves too broken into a relationship, and yet more unwise to think that this relationship alone can fill the gaps.
And of course when babies enter the picture of the nuclear family, the stresses and strains simply escalate. Overwhelmingly here in the West the trials of parenthood seem to be considered the domain of the couple alone. It is considered lucky if Granny lives close enough to shoulder the burden with some midweek babysitting. When I consider this picture, it becomes ever less surprising that broken marriages are becoming the norm. I can hardy imagine the strength you would need to make it alone.
I wonder also if this is a recent development? The abundance of wealth and opportunity we have enjoyed over the last 50 years has meant we can first afford our own homes, and then afford homes big enough for ever child to have their own room for the youngest age. Ironically, this tide is perhaps turning now, but it’s still mostly the case that young adults aspire for their independence as early as possible. But do we really want this right to our individuality?
In Laos society operates very differently. The problems of a marriage are the problems of the whole community; they share the burden over the backs of many and try and find solutions together. Further each of them belongs not just within the nuclear family but within a whole network of extended family and lifelong friends who are rarely more than a stone’s throw away. A typical house will find three or four generations under the same roof and during a day’s work in the rice fields it is expected that Granny or Grandpa will entertain the kids. I met a privileged Laos banker who had studied a Masters in America. I asked him if he wanted to go back and would consider living there, but he said he could never imagine leaving his community. It would break him. He is currently living with his parents, sister, nieces and nephews. I have just signed a contract to work in Saigon for 2 years, where I know no one at all.
I am not holding this model up as an ideal, and I have heard others report it as stifling and riven with gossip. But I think there is a nugget of profound sense in it. And if you want evidence you can feel it in abundance in the warmth of people’s hearts. So it seems I left the UK to go on a journey into myself, and what I have found is a journey into each other. As Jack Johnson croons so joyfully, maybe we are indeed ‘better together’.