I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.
– John Keats, from a letter to Charles Brown (1820)
A friend of mine hates good-byes and says so when it’s time to part. Eager to dispel the awkwardness that seems to grow as farewells are prolonged, I sometimes ere on the side of abruptness. What can our feelings about leave-taking tell us about ourselves?
Our distaste for good-byes is a reminder of our unfathomable mutual dependence. An individual self cannot come into being, let alone endure, absent the recognition of others. We depend on others not only to nourish our material persons, but to sustain our immaterial personas.
Recognition is as essential to the self as nutrition is to the body. That humans are social animals, understates the case. We are existentially interdependent—body and soul. Deprive us of human contact and we begin to disintegrate. That’s why solitary confinement is torture.
Malnutrition cripples a child. Similarly, malrecognition—a diet of indignity—warps the psyche. Chronic indignity sows indignation. Turned inward, indignation makes us ill. Turned outward, it erupts in Columbine, Virginia Tech, and in other violent rampages.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
Emily knew that what stands between us and exile is affiliation. Autonomy is a myth and exposing it as such has political implications that we are only now beginning to comprehend.
Have you noticed that old folks tell the same stories over and over? They are desperately trying to shore up identities that, because of a paucity of recognition, are breaking down. By telling us their stories, they are staving off the disintegration of self, one day at a time. You can’t really blame them—their struggle is at once heroic and tragic. That you’ve heard it all before is a measure of their need to repeat themselves. One day you’ll need a comprehending ear to offset the recognition deficiencies that plague old-age.
Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. … this is the magic glass … .
So spoke Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick. Without that “magic glass,” we gradually cease to be. I see you seeing me and I exist. I see you seeing me see you and we exist. Mutual re-cognition is the glue that holds us together, not merely as friends, but as individual selves. In co-creating and exchanging a blizzard of signals, verbal and non-verbal, we are reinforcing the synapses that form the neural nets that encode our very selves.
Good-byes are poignant preludes to the leave-takings and withdrawals that deprive our psyches of the sustenance they need to maintain our selfhood. As such, every good-bye is a premonition of disintegration, a foretaste of death, another step on the path to “adieu.”
No wonder we’re not fond of good-byes.
[This Q/A pair is one of a series of short answers to life-long questions, collected from friends and strangers alike. Other questions include: Why do we seek a partner? Why do we exaggerate? Why do we want to travel? What is enlightenment? Why do some prefer dogs, others cats? Why do we lie? Is there a better game than war? Must love end? Why is life hard? A tagline for the series might be Emerson’s observation: “It is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another.” If my answers provoke you to come up with answers of your own, they’ve served their purpose. There is no gift like a good question. Moreover, a question can be re-gifted endlessly. If you have one you’re willing to share, please leave it here.]