Learning to Understand Suffering Different from One's Own: Aliona Karavai's Conversation With Yurko Prokhasko About Loneliness

Documenting Ukraine

Living through a full-scale invasion is an extreme state of being. It has filled our lives with existential meaning and, in a way, made us less lonely— the sense of mutual support from many strangers makes a difference. Moreover, we receive this support not only within your own country but also in others, almost worldwide. At the same time, the war has made us lonelier in our private lives because we have lost loved ones or had to part ways with them. Yurko, how do you feel about loneliness in your practice? Has the demand regarding loneliness changed? Are we lonelier now?

War is a prolonged, exhausting, and paradoxical state. It's an ancient truth that war reveals the best and the worst in us. War allows us to experience the most fulfillment and the most devastation, the greatest bravery and the greatest cowardice. War vividly illustrates virtues and vices.

But we also have the understanding that war cannot encompass the entirety of human nature. It's not about getting accustomed to war, fleeing, or engaging in escapism and adventures to avoid or forget. It's about the fact that when war persists, ordinary "human things" persist alongside it: people fall in love, they get jealous, they envy, they fantasize. People make plans, build families, and construct houses. It's a dual existence, something akin to what Germans call “Mischwesen.” These are mythical creatures composed of parts of different beings.

I don't know anyone untouched by war. It permeates the thinnest and farthest-reaching capillaries. You cannot hide from war, and it will always find you one way or another. It's impossible to separate things and say, “Here are my war-related experiences, and there are my mundane, ordinary, ‘human’ ones.”

This complexity also pertains to loneliness because the concept is manifold. There are new forms of loneliness that were revived by the war. Military separation causes a specific kind of loneliness. The loss resulting from war leaves behind a feeling of peculiar solitude. The loneliness of those who leave and find themselves in a foreign land, even if they are not alone, is a new form of loneliness beyond borders. Countless kinds of changes in loneliness have occurred. Each of them is excessive. None of them is the one we chose or agreed upon. Each kind of loneliness wounds and traumatizes in its own way.

However, there are still forms that I would call "pre-war." For instance, lovers continue to part ways, and the abandoned ones feel lonely. Couples living together still experience a sense of alienation despite their physical proximity and shared space. There are still people who have felt lonely from childhood for as long as they can remember. They suffer from double consequences because they can't answer the question, "Why do I feel different than others? Why do others seem carefree, light, and joyful when I feel isolated?" This hasn't diminished either.

On the one hand, war changes everything. Nothing will ever be the same as before. On the other hand, there is an understanding that fundamental human phenomena continue. We all live double lives—the farther from the front line, the more so.

Soldiers on the front line experience a different kind of loneliness but also a different solidarity. Yes, they may feel lonely when it seems they have been abandoned arbitrarily, that they have been taken advantage of. But they also have a unique sense of closeness with their comrades. This feeling can be so powerful that they wouldn't want to trade it for anything else. This closeness and lack of loneliness, this solidarity in the war of annihilation, is enough. These people can return changed, feeling estranged and superfluous in the ordinary world of people, even with the people who are the closest or who used to be the closest to them.

In both peace and war, there are numerous forms and ways of experiencing loneliness. It's worth taking a closer look at them. One of the possible lines of thought here would be: Is that loneliness desired or undesired?

Yes, because there is solitude (what Germans call “Alleinsein”), and there is selfness (correspondingly, “Selbstsucht”). Can we say that selfness, being alone with oneself without suffering and with a certain pleasure, is overcoming loneliness? And what is the culture of loneliness in Ukraine? Is it something we are ashamed of, striving for collectivism, or do we, on the contrary, enjoy the opportunity to dedicate our inner resources to ourselves?

Let me try to start from the end. Loneliness is becoming less of a stigma. This is related to the passage of time because fundamental loneliness is associated with what we call alienation, that is, isolation and estrangement. This is already connected with modernization. There is an ancient theory that such loneliness that exists in modernity did not exist in pre-modernity. In traditional lifeworlds and frameworks that could have felt unbearable, there was no opportunity to feel lonely. Everyone had their place within the community, whether the community was desirable, tolerable, or downright hostile. But you always had your place, and no one encroached upon it. Modern loneliness is linked to the fact that you have freedom – sometimes imagined, apparent, or mental – but you don't have your place.

Ukrainian society is changing faster than many other societies where modernization happened earlier and differently. Ukraine is becoming less of a traditional society: even before the war, everything was extremely globalized, and this war will destroy the remnants of small nests of traditional lifeworlds we might yearn for. In increasingly modernized societies, this yearning becomes a basis for politically instrumentalized nostalgia and constructing utopias oriented toward the past. For example, the slogan "Make America Great Again" is a return to something that never was but now becomes a basis for poisoning or discrediting the present. In this context, yes, loneliness in Ukraine is becoming less stigmatized.

There are more and more people leading happy lives alone. Fewer people feel obligated, for example, to create a traditional nuclear family or have children. There are more people organizing their lives more sovereignly and differently. They might regulate relationships— romantic, sexual, friendly, or collegial —from the standpoint that they are masters of the situation. And there are fewer strange looks at people who live alone or seemingly alone.

This doesn't negate the age-old division where some forms of loneliness are desired and others undesired. Some people seek loneliness in one way or another, in one life situation or another, either situationally or permanently. There are people who would like to live in a community but can't, or those who would like to feel invested in relationships but cannot.

But it's even more complicated because those who seek loneliness do it for different reasons. Seeking loneliness can stem from exhaustion or disappointment, for example. This is something entirely different than seeking solitude from a sense of one's own fullness and something different than isolating oneself out of fear. There are those who fear other people, and there are more of them than we would like to admit. For them, other people are sources of constant danger, so they prefer to stay away. And this search for loneliness is entirely different from needing space to create something, like composing a symphony. The spectrum is vast, and each form of loneliness has its own story, source, and origin.

Regarding the concept of "selfness," I have certain difficulties here. I understand that sometimes there is a desire to avoid swimming in terminological ambiguity and, instead, there is a tendency to differentiate. Good solitude might be called selfness and bad solitude loneliness, similar to how Jacques Lacan tried to specify what Freud intuitively described. For Freud, the feeling of pleasure remained very ambivalent. What is called “Lust” in German could mean many things to Freud: desire for pleasure, its attainment, anticipation, pleasantness, and neurotic satisfaction marked by a desire for death. Lacan wanted to bring terminological order and proposed calling good satisfaction "pleasure" and pathological satisfaction, that is, "enjoyment." Essentially, pleasure would be good, and enjoyment would be bad.

I think such differentiation rarely succeeds. Additionally, this desire to establish conceptual clarity contradicts one fundamental tendency of language: the ambivalence of language and its concepts. Preserving this ambivalence in language seems more important for us as humans than constructing explicit terminological classifications. Our gain and advantage from having language be polysemous will prove to be greater than realizing that we can operate with it less ambiguously. The same goes for the concept of loneliness. For me, it is much more important to continually look at what kind of loneliness it is, what its origins are, what its status is at this moment, as well as what its dynamics are. Preserving the polysemy of what we call human reality seems more important to me than building even an intermediate but seemingly clear understanding.

At the same time, the concept of selfness holds a significant tradition for me as a psychoanalyst. It's what Germans call “Selbst” and what in English is the self. It's about the self as opposed to the "I" — me and my extended world, so to speak. The self is everything related to me in this world, what I care about, and what I can understand as a part of myself. It can be ideas that are important to me, my impressions or memories, my favorite works, places, plants, and buildings. It's everything contained in what we call "my inner world" and everything I can bring to life through imagination or recollection, not to mention people. This selfness is usually written with a capital letter to distinguish it from the ordinary concept not related to psychoanalysis. But I mentioned this not to clarify the history of concepts but for one essential thing in our conversation.

This brings us to what we in psychoanalysis call the dry and unappetizing term "internal objects." Internal objects are other people – not living bodies but their internal representations. Each of us carries within ourselves images of people who are close and important, and much depends on how the stories of these internal objects are constructed. Are they experienced as good or bad? Are they affectionate towards me or hostile? This concerns the possibilities of their internalization. It happens beyond our consciousness, but it turns out that some people's souls are filled with affectionate representations of close people, while others are not. For some, internal objects are unstable and poorly internalized, while for others, they are well internalized but threatening and hostile.

This directly leads us to the answer to the question of how an adult can experience loneliness. The more reliable, stronger, and affectionate my internal objects are, the easier it is for me to be with myself and be alone. If, for some reason, my selfness lacks properly established, internalized, good objects, I will feel an emptiness that needs immediate filling with something or someone. Then loneliness transforms into suffering and anxiety. When my soul is filled with unkind, hostile internal objects, I will avoid people and hide in solitude. And then loneliness becomes the best way out for me but not the best state. It's not solitude replete with selfness; it indicates being in the mode of escape and concealment. From this, it becomes clear that loneliness is never truly solitary – there are always others present in the soul.

Can any "bad" loneliness be transformed into "good,” that is, something we can enjoy? Is it within our power, or does it not work that way?

Not always. Certain kinds of loneliness can indeed be transformed into something good. Sometimes, the path to rebirth begins with learning to be alone and not be afraid. Much effort goes into not simultaneously feeling shame for one's loneliness and fear. On the one hand, it can be the experience of emptiness that needs to be filled immediately at any cost. On the other hand, it can be a fear of oneself. Perhaps I fear myself because I don't know who I am and what to expect from myself. This state is often accompanied by what is typically described metaphorically as one’s inner demons, although these demons usually turn out to be not as terrifying as one's imagination paints them. Or perhaps I know myself, the dangers within me, and what I might encounter too well. Loneliness then transforms into a perilous and ominous state.

In many cases, it is indeed possible to learn how to transform malignant loneliness into benign loneliness. But not always, because there are lonelinesses that are a form of grace, and there are lonelinesses that cannot be corrected. There are necessary kinds of lonelinesses, that is, not just inevitable but necessary. We call them longing or sorrow. Not feeling longing for someone I lost or living in separation from loved ones is not what I should aspire to. It's a part of what we call human suffering.

Once Freud provided a concise definition of the purpose of psychoanalysis: it is meant to replace neurotic suffering with normal suffering. For Freud, it was evident that suffering is an inevitable component of human life. To be human means to suffer. Not always, not perpetually, but being human means not being able to avoid suffering. At the same time, sometimes suffering takes on neurotic traits when life circumstances do not cause it but the specific way it is processed. If lucky, we can transform neurotic suffering into normal human suffering. Suffering is always abundant, and in war, it becomes immeasurably greater.

And here, I would like to talk about one thing that troubles me. It can affect anyone. It's a state that Lacan called "the real," but it's not about the reality or truth of life. It's the feeling when you fall out of the human world, out of the world of human meanings and senses, only understanding the elementary, biological-tissue connections of your existence with a sense of horror. At the same time, you understand the cultural meanings – the meanings of words and music – but you seem to be beyond them. You understand the logic of emotions, which is part of culture, but you find yourself in a situation where all of this becomes alien to you. It's the experience of losing one's humanity and being left one-on-one with the horror of bare organic life, which is also bare organic death. There is nothing more there. This is what Lacan called “the real,” and these intense experiences can happen to any of us. Usually, they are fleeting, and we soon return to the world of culture and humanity. But sometimes — due to mental trauma, immense shock, illness, or an existential crisis, what Sartre called “nausea” — we lose this ability.

These states of loneliness and alienation are terrifying. War always brings a significant increase in their probability, quantity, and severity. Two things are important to consider here. Firstly, it is crucial to have access to specific therapeutic techniques that can alleviate the feeling of alienation. But there's also a "secondly" that I wanted to emphasize more. This encounter with the real in the most horrifying sense concerns the entire community now. We are all threatened, each one of us. None of us knows whether we will survive until the war’s end. And if we survive, will we recognize ourselves, or will we be able to be a community anymore? Will we want to be together, or will we be able to feel affection for someone who is not directly close to us? Will we be able to carry the feelings of citizenship, solidarity, and community? Ultimately, will we be pushed to a state where, after defeating the external enemy, we will want to tear ourselves apart from the inside? We don't know the answer. However, these dangers loom over us, and more than that, they are already present.

We cannot rely solely on therapy because it has its limitations. Moreover, we have already found ourselves in a situation where there are significantly more sufferers than those who can somehow manage this suffering. The world will lack therapists to treat how maimed we already are and how maimed we will become. We have only one chance and one way. It's complex and not guaranteed success – we should have been practicing it already. This way is learning to understand everyone's suffering in all its diversity. Learning to understand suffering different from one’s own. Understanding others' suffering as if it were my own, deserving attention and a chance to be understood. Only under such circumstances can we hope to preserve the sense of solidarity and community among those involved. It will be very difficult, but we have no other choice.

There is no worse loneliness than the loneliness of being caught up in trauma. There is no worse feeling than the sense that you have been abandoned within this trauma, and it has become a capsule, impermeable to others. Mostly, this is an illusion. Sometimes, at a crucial moment, people lack the support they need to escape this isolation before it solidifies. 

Text originally published (in Ukrainian) by Suspilne Kultura as part of a collaboration with Documenting Ukraine. 

Translated by Kate Tsurkan