Life vs. Loneliness: How to Come Out on Top
To survive, the Man of the Hole chops down palms to extract the heart and grows pawpaw, manioc and corn. He carves arrowheads for hunting and fashions torches from resin. For water, he stores rain in calabashes. At least, that's what we think he does, based on the occasional, distant observation.
In this age of instant messages and apps that let us beam our location in the world to the world, the Man of the Hole lives deep in the Brazilian jungle in complete isolation, unaware of the existence of submarines, fiber optics or even plain old Tupperware. He is what's known as an "uncontacted" person. There are other uncontacted people out there—Survival International, the organization that monitors these populations, estimates there are 30,000 individuals—but the Man of the Hole lives on his own because he is the last living member of his tribe. He is the only one left who speaks his language or remembers his elders. When he hunts or harvests, he eats alone. When he digs a hole, he sleeps there alone.
Although the Man of the Hole's isolation is no doubt good for his health and well-being (uncontacted people can be susceptible to diseases, are often victimized or killed by loggers and farmers who want their land, and often suffer if they enter larger societies due to their lack of education and job skills), it's not bad for the rest of us either. He's been known to shoot arrows when strangers approach—and hit them.
Strangely enough, as soon as I found him online, he made me think of my friend Kim—despite the fact that Kim lives in New York City where there is plenty of contact with other humans. About a year ago, Kim got divorced (a good but stressful decision) and immediately fell deeply in love with another man. He fell in love with her too, until he fell in love with a 21-year-old college student and dumped Kim. Then Kim's father died. She fell apart, understandably. She was 42, she was not going to have the children she wanted, and she was alone—very alone.
A few weeks ago, I went over to see her as a surprise. She was sitting on her bed in her tiny one-room apartment. The blinds were shut, the AC on, the TV roaring—all of this creating a wall of darkness and sound that functioned like a wall of jungle foliage, cutting her off from the world. Clearly, she had not left in a few days, or even a few weeks, except to go to her job, which bores her senseless, but that she could not ever possibly quit, as she reminded me, because she only had herself to count on.
I told her I loved her. I told her that she had her friends. I told her that she was beautiful and smart and funny and brilliant (all of which are true). I knew she was under the care of a doctor and on depression medication, and I also knew that everything I said was trite, obvious and unhelpful. Still I would have stayed, blathering. But she kept lighting up one cigarette after another, blowing out great billows of smoke inside a room with shut windows. I didn't know how to tell her this, but I could not breathe. I had to leave. I was getting ill. And so I lurched out of there, making up some excuse about dry-cleaning.
After a certain age, most of us do. Because who hasn't felt completely alone at one time or another, due to heartbreak and loss? Who hasn't wondered, if, say, you happened to smoke too much or not eat enough or not sleep enough and fainted and hit your head on the sharp metal corner of the AC, "Would anybody even find me?"
In the best of alternate realities, I'd have something amazing and absolute to tell Kim about her long-term future, like she's going to get remarried to a person who really loves her. Or she's not going to get remarried, but she is going to find some meaningful career that really uses her talents. Or she'll just stay at her current dull job but use her free time to do things like travel and paint and have affairs and enjoy the upside of being alone, the free and creative and independent side.
But when it comes to the world we live in, the one without definitive answers, what I really wish for her is to get out of the hole. Some uncontacted people may need to guard their isolation in order to save their lives, their traditions and their habitats, but for the rest of us, there is another way to greet the big, bright world when it comes calling, even if you no longer think you belong there.
Consider what the Korubo Indians did in October of 1996 when Brazilian officials entered their village. The Korubo, also known for shooting strangers in order to protect their solitude, decided instead to welcome the officials—warily and distantly, but with friendly faces. In return, they learned that timber camps had moved into their area and that they needed to stay clear of them to protect their way of life.
So as of today, this is what I'm going to say to Kim, finally (and I have the phone in my hot little hand right now): "Honey, we are not being threatened by rogue loggers or farmers who want our land. We have a choice when the bell rings at the door: Dive in the hole and shoot arrows...or wave, however uncertainly, and smile."
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