Group Psychotherapy Column

Tevya Zukor, Ph.D.

Directions to Neverland:
Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

The night air was cold. I could see the condensation of my breath billowing before my eyes with each exhale. As it was past midnight, the neighborhood was eerily quiet. There were only a few lights on; dotting the porches of nearby houses in the placid stillness.

Earlier in the evening, I had forgotten to take the trash to the curb for early-morning pick-up. As I was preparing for bed, I remembered this chore, which explains why I was outside in little more than a pair of slippers and a bathrobe.

It had already been a tough day.  I was feeling particularly down about recent life circumstances.  I had just learned of the death of my ex-father-in-law; who had been an extremely kind and caring man. Some of my closest friends had been more distant due to their changing life circumstances. I had some clients who were struggling to make progress in their lives and I was feel powerless to affect change. As far as reasons for melancholy, it was the usual suspects and while the feelings were unpleasant; they were neither debilitating nor overwhelming.

These were some of the dark thoughts swirling through my mind that night as I stood on my porch; feeling literally and figuratively exposed to the frozen wind. I observed the quiet all around me and for a brief, fleeting moment; I felt a deep, profound sense of isolation and aloneness.  In that instant, the world started to shrink into nothing and that great existential loneliness of finite existence started to take root.

During that moment of reflection; surrounded by a self-made cauldron of anxiety, depression, and fear; I looked up into the heavens and stared at the stars. I saw the constellations in the night sky and followed the handle of the Big Dipper to Arcturus and then found the brightest star of Spica.

Despite the frigid temperature, I noticed a momentary warmth pour over me. My mind went back to a time when I was young, first learning about the cosmos and the galaxy.  I was transported back to the time when I was sitting in my high school planetarium as a teenager, listening to the teacher explain how one can always find the stars Arcturus and Spica as long as one can locate Ursa Major in the night sky. I thought about the hundreds, if not thousands, of times since that high-school day where I have looked at the night sky, followed a gentle path with my eyes, and mumbled, “Arc to Arcturus; spike to Spica.”

In that moment while physically standing alone on my porch in the middle of the night, my mind was transferred back to a moment in college.  I had met a young woman that I wanted to impress with my wit, intelligence, and charm.  I flashed to the memory from nearly two decades ago when as a freshman at James Madison University, this woman and I drove an hour outside of town to find a field that was not so light-contaminated. We sat on a warm fleece blanket, which I had draped over the hood of my car. We spent much of the evening embraced in a hug of friendship and watched the universe unfold before our eyes.  It was a magical night and one I remember fondly after all of these years.

As I wrestled with my place in the world; standing alone in my slippers and bathrobe with my eyes turned to the stars; I reflected on the many previous times I have found solace in the peacefulness of a night sky. Far from being alone, all of a sudden I felt connected.  I was connected to all the past versions of me who had stared at those very same stars while trying to sort out complicated thoughts.  I found myself connected to people thousands of years old, from civilizations that have long since crumbled.  The stars I saw were the same stars those nameless, faceless people saw when they gazed into the night sky during their lifetime.  Even though we would never know each other’s names or even directly know of the other’s existence; we had a common, shared experience. We were bonded through space and time.

Even the giant, combustible balls of gas we call stars highlight the shared journey we have in common.   Due to the limitations of the speed of light, we never see a star in real-time.  Instead, the light particles necessary to produce those images have traveled many thousands of years before they are visible to us. If at any point in that cosmic journey, another celestial object moves into that path of light, we will never see the star.   It means that even the shared human experience of gazing up at the same sky of our ancestors requires a very particular set of events to occur in a very particular order. These events were set into motion billions of years ago and will likely continue for billions of years into the future.

It was a profound realization. My temporary existential crisis of the night had uncovered something remarkable – It is impossible to be alone in the world. As an individual, one cannot see and accomplish everything that one desires in a lifetime.  However, when considered as part of a collective known as human beings – part of a truly Large Group – the confines of living a single life fade in importance as we recognize the unfettered accomplishment of the group. Maybe the true human condition is learning that we will often feel weak when we view ourselves as just one of many, but we have strength in our groups. It forms the foundation for all of our accomplishments. As long as we identify with the “human” sub-group, we can never be alone – sometimes, we can just feel temporarily disconnected.