There have been countless books, poems and songs written about loneliness, paintings painted and sculptures sculpted. There have been entire symphonies and operas created in an attempt to convey and understand this most basic, agonizing human condition. And it’s never enough. Just like love, loneliness is a fundamental ingredient in what makes us human, what fills our lives—something we struggle with, live with, and will continue to try to understand until the day we die.
Giving birth during the pandemic prompted me to think about loneliness often, and I found myself reading everything I could about Antarctica: a lonely, endangered, exquisite place. I read Through the First Antarctic Night, by Frederick A. Cook, a travel log of the first expedition to winter-over on the continent, and found that his words from 1898 described, almost perfectly, the fear and trepidation I felt as a new mother; also, the illuminating, otherworldly splendor.
It was a painful, complicated beauty, like the ache that remains after frostbitten hands are finally thawed by a fire. I found that some of my own home remedies for loneliness—connecting with nature, relying on my imagination—were what Cook and his crew used to survive their long, frozen months in Antarctica.
As my baby grew, as the months of lockdown dragged on, I turned to other writing about Antarctica: modern travel accounts, scientific research, studies about what it is like to be a woman explorer on the continent. I also read many books about motherhood: ones that celebrated it, others that mourned it. In all of my reading, I was looking for some sort of truth, a key to understanding what I was experiencing. What I found, over and over, were similarities between travel writing about Antarctica and personal memoir about motherhood. At the heart of both: beauty, struggle, and a new relationship with loneliness.
“There are some things women don’t do. They don’t become Pope or President or go down to the Antarctic,” warned explorer Harry Darlington in 1947. “Women will not be allowed in the Antarctic until we can provide one woman for every man,” said Admiral George Dufek in 1957. “Antarctica [will] remain the womanless white continent of peace,” predicted Admiral F.E. Bakutis in 1965.
I could go on, but what is more interesting are the voices that rendered these men mute, the women who traveled to and lived in Antarctica as explorers, scientists, and adventurers. These women share the very specific strain of loneliness that comes with being a pioneer in the way they were, of having the courage to go to a place where you are unwanted, considered not to belong. The loneliness and courage required to prove everyone wrong.
It takes a similar courage to write about motherhood, whether from the perspective of a poet or a scientist; to consider it worthy of study, to seek truth and understanding, to think of motherhood, like Antarctica, as a vast and under-explored continent. There has been an increasing amount of literature in recent years, both non-fiction and fiction, that explores the experience of motherhood in a bold, new way; perspectives that once would have been considered shameful, that still are by some.
I think of Rachel Cusk and Maggie Nelson, Elena Ferrante and Claire Vaye Watkins—the thirst that exists for their work, the relief and recognition that come with reading it. They too are pioneers, going to places considered unseemly, rejecting convention, offering new ways to think and talk about motherhood, questioning the ways we’ve been shaped and molded, like glaciers, over centuries.
What happened all over the world during the pandemic, from the most densely populated cities to the tiniest of towns, has been described in the journal Nature as “the largest isolation experiment in history,” similar in many ways to the research that has been done on small groups of scientists who winter-over in Antarctica or astronauts who spend extended periods in space.
In Paris, the pandemic arrived when I was eight months pregnant. It was a particularly gorgeous spring, a far cry from endless winter, but we no longer had access to it. We were technically allowed to leave our apartment with a signed attestation for one hour per day, but these were the early days when the disease in the air was little understood; we didn’t know how contagious it was or even how exactly it was contagious. My doctor told me it would be wisest to stay inside, to take no risks. For many weeks I didn’t leave, not once, and I felt remarkably, shockingly un-claustrophobic.
I was full as an egg, soon to burst. I walked from room to room of our apartment (a short walk in a one-bedroom), trying to imagine how our lives would soon change; how this watermelon-sized creature would make her way out of me; how I might be as a mother. And when I did long for spring, for sun on my skin, the smell of blossoms and the sound of birds, I would spread a blanket across the floor of our bathroom, the only room that got direct sunlight, and I would bask—my bare belly a small mountain now, rising towards the sun, the baby kicking against the warmth, my body languid and relaxed in a way that was becoming increasingly rare.
That bathroom was the only place I found what I was craving in those days—not just sunlight, but contented solitude. I felt like myself in there, lying on the cool tiles next to the bathtub, windows open to the bluest of skies, wispy with fairy-like clouds. Oddly, for Paris, there was no sound of traffic, only the most eerie, beautiful silence. The smell of magnolia blossoms, carried along by the wind, became all the more pungent in the suddenly muted world.
I was on to something with those sun-solitude cures, I learned later, reading Cook’s journal. One of the best remedies he came up with against anaemia, madness, depression, and any other number of ailments in those long dark months aboard the Belgica was, along with eating copious amounts of penguin, what he called a “baking treatment.”
The course of therapy was simple: to strip down and sit for one hour a day in front of a roaring fire, staring into the flames, feeling heat on bare skin. The therapy became a type of communion for the stranded explorers, an ersatz sun, warming their bones and cheering the spirit. I imagine those men thawing not just in body but in heart during their treatments: muscles unclenching, anxieties dissipating, even fleetingly.
As Cook describes:
During the long months of winter darkness the life-giving rays of the sun are withdrawn, leaving the summer whiteness of the earth in cold and despondent blackness. Bright artificial lights relieve this to some extent, but all the animal organism is in a condition similar to that of a planet deprived of the direct sunlight. The skin is pale, the muscles are weak, and the organs refuse to perform their functions with usual vigor. This effect is most noticeable in the action of the heart which, during the long night, is deprived of its regulating force; now quick, now slow; then strong, again feeble, but never normal. The best substitute for this absence of the sun is the direct rays of heat from an open fire. From an ordinary coal or wood fire the effect is wonderful. I have stripped and placed men, before the direct rays of heat, whose pulse was almost imperceptible, and in the course of less than an hour had a heart action nearly normal.
An hour a day in warmth, in meditation; a moment of calm solitude rather than deranged loneliness. I come back, again and again, to the slippery difference between the two. Crafty twins, they are shape-shifting, enjoying the romp of one dressing up as the other, changing identity so quickly as to take one’s breath away. But they are not equal in their powers, because while solitude can transform into loneliness with frightening swiftness, it is rarer for it to go the other way: for loneliness to break her way into the beckoning, boundless territory that is solitude.This was edging us closer to the apocalypse. And I had just given life to the most beautiful, vulnerable creature; one that filled me with love and fear in equal measure.
Rare, but not impossible. From the very state of relentless and often painful brooding something new can emerge. Loneliness, like solitude, can lead to surprising moments of connection and great acts of creation. And perhaps loneliness has an advantage in this way, for hidden beneath her belly is searing motivation; once she loosens her paralysis-inducing grip even slightly, there is an urge to break free. An urge to move, an urge to exist. The need to become visible again, even if only—and most importantly—to oneself.
The loneliness of early motherhood—and by this I mean early motherhood, the beginning hours and days when the baby is still fresh, covered in vernix, and the mother is still sore, wounded by the birthing process—will forever be tangled up with the pandemic, a source of both wonder and trauma.
Because of sanitary restrictions, those blurry days and nights were spent alone with my baby in the hospital, her curled up like a snail against my naked chest, me masked and woozy, discombobulated by the birth but also by the ferocity of love I already felt. The only visitors were doctors, nurses or the workers who served trays of food three times a day. Our exchanges were brief and almost furtive. We feared everything—surfaces, air molecules, each other.
The hospital was generous enough in their rules to allow my partner to come to the hospital as soon as I was in active labor, but a few hours after our child’s birth he was sent home, not to be seen again until five days later when the baby and I were finally released.
Our hospital room was high and bright with a view of the Paris rooftops, of trees in bloom. Every evening, I would lie there with my baby feeling trepidation for the night ahead, trying to explain to her and to me both what this all meant: what a pandemic was, what it meant to bring a new being into such a context, why there was still hope and reason to believe in the future—in her future.
Wondering if all of my doubts about having children, not just personal but global—climate change, food scarcity, social injustice, the list includes pretty much everything—had finally and emphatically been proven correct. The pandemic had a way of putting all fears on fast forward: this was what we had always, vaguely, been afraid of. This was edging us closer to the apocalypse. And I had just given life to the most beautiful, vulnerable creature; one that filled me with love and fear in equal measure.
A paper published in the journal Safety in Extreme Environments describes such places as sharing a few fundamental qualities: “a hazardous physical surrounding, a demanding mission goal, and limited communications with loved ones at home.” Isolated research outposts in both Antarctica and the Arctic qualify as extreme environments, the article goes on to say, which means such places are ideal labs for psychological study.
The anti-hero of this particular study is Albert (not his real name), a 21-year-old Polish physicist taking part in his first Arctic mission. Together, he and small group of scientists are to spend a year doing research and having their physical and mental health monitored. At the beginning of the mission, Albert is healthy and energetic, thrilled to have such a prestigious professional opportunity at such a young age. Yet over the coming months, he comes to experience the worst depression of the entire group. Eventually, he has to be evacuated for his own safety.
Albert’s troubles began when the initial excitement of the mission transformed into grinding monotony. Over time, a terrifying loneliness took hold. Albert complained of no longer feeling like himself. He loathed the cold darkness, felt increasingly trapped, and missed his family something fierce. Mostly, though, he missed himself.
He describes feeling like a “ghost self,” not there (physically) at home and increasingly absent (mentally) on base. He began to lose weight as well as his memory. He started to stammer, a problem he had never had before, particularly when describing his emotions. The authors of the study identify the stammering not as a speech impediment but as a “sign of his emotional grief.”
What Albert describes feeling is alarming—a deep alienation not only from others but from himself. This is the definition of loneliness, a main ingredient of depression. As Albert describes in an interview:
‘…I didn’t realize that even watching people in a pub, in a tram, on a bus, on a street, everywhere that that creates thoughts. It creates thoughts. I don’t have thoughts right now. I don’t have thoughts! I used to have so many thoughts! ‘Why do those people act like this?’ ‘What do they do?’ ‘Why do people walk like that?’ And I thought. But now I don’t, I don’t think! I-I think only about stupid things. I have to do the measurement, I go do the measurement and that’s it. And I go back and I lie down and I don’t think. I can’t stand this fucking emptiness.’
Cook wrote of something similar: “The moonlight comes and goes alike, during the hours of midday as at midnight. The stars glisten over the gloomy snows. We miss the usual poetry and adventure of home winter nights. We miss the flushed maidens, the jingling bells, the spirited horses, the inns, the crackling blaze of the country fire. We miss much of life which makes it worth the trouble of existence.”
I keep coming back to the stillness of the pandemic, beautiful at first but haunting as the weeks went on, with only the sounds of birds and sirens coming in from the streets. Thankfully, our apartment building wrapped around a communal courtyard and the open windows carried across the constant and reassuring presence of neighbors during that first lockdown. Other human beings, alive and scared and lonely, just like us.
All of the neighborly sounds that once could have been irritating—loud phone conversations, out-of-tune guitar practice, the latest Netflix series—became reassuring and even cherished. The sound of our new baby crying and cooing joined in with all the others.
Medical anthropologist Lawrence Palinkas has spent decades studying what happens to people’s emotions, bodies, and mental stabilities during long periods of isolation. He identifies the key stressors at Antarctic research stations as minimal privacy, boredom, sexual and emotional deprivation, artificial possibilities for social interaction, and reduced opportunity to escape or avoid interpersonal conflicts. All of these, too, are a perfect description of the ambience in our postpartum one-bedroom apartment under lockdown.
What ties the pandemic and motherhood together is the same thread that runs through all of our lives, the undertow that is always there, nipping at our heels. The thread of loneliness—living with it, living through it, overcoming it. Whether that loneliness comes from birth or from death, from adventure or disaster. A loneliness that, once the darkness has shifted even subtly, can help us to see what is around us more clearly, more vividly. As Cook describes so beautifully:
We have talked only of the discomforts of the night, and of the misery. The long unbroken darkness has not totally blinded us to its few real charms which are strikingly brought out by the awful contrast of heat and cold, of light and darkness. As lovers of Nature, we found many pleasures for the eye and the intellect in the flashing aurora australis, in the play of intense silvery moonlight over the mountainous seas of ice, and in the fascinating clearness of the starlight over the endless expanse of driven snows. There was a naked fierceness in the scenes, a boisterous wildness in the storms, a sublimity and silence in the still, cold rayless nights, which were too impressive to be entirely overshadowed by the soul-despairing depression. The attractions of the polar nights are not to be written in the language of a people who live in a land of sunshine and of flowers. They are found in a roughness, ruggedness, and severity, appreciated only by men who are fated to live in similar regions, on the verge of another world, where animal sentiments take the pace of the finer, but less realistic human passions.
Either poets disguised as scientists are drawn to Antarctica or Antarctica brings out the poet in scientists, but I return again and again to the writing of those stationed at bases across the continent: words from centuries ago, words from today. In the early months of my daughter’s life I begin following the blog of researchers stationed at Concordia, Antarctica’s most isolated base and the most remote base on earth. To these scientists, the pandemic is nothing they aren’t already living with: extreme isolation and a much closer than usual relationship to life and death.
The human experience pushed to extremes. Twelve people on a base completely cut off from the rest of the world for months at a time—no way to leave, no help that will come. In times like these, we discover that time has the ability to pass excruciatingly slowly and breathtakingly quickly at once; that loneliness is inescapable and sometimes engulfing, but that just as it can reveal new valleys, terrifying in their depths, so can it reveal new vistas, ethereal and revelatory.
The body is a landscape, parts of which have been measured and explored, others that remain uncharted and wild. Especially when we talk of a woman’s body there are countless topographies and subterranean lands that remain unknown, dismissed in the past as unimportant or uninteresting or, as was and is too often the case, interpreted as some deficiency, a fault or error on the part of the woman herself.A certain amount of aloneness and even loneliness is manageable, even pleasurable, a bittersweet zone of reflection and distance. But like anything in excess, too much loneliness, or short-term loneliness that becomes chronic, becomes nauseating, overwhelming, toxic.
Loneliness has been described as a public-health epidemic—and this was before the pandemic, which most people would agree plunged us even deeper into the throes of loneliness. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, found that the increased risk of mortality from loneliness is the equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.
Similarly, other studies have found that isolation leads to an increased risk of mental decline, including dementia, and is associated with a higher chance of suffering from a heart attack, stroke, chronic inflammation, depression, anxiety and stress.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of loneliness is its very definition. Most dictionaries are unhelpful in understanding the condition, providing vague descriptions or misleading synonyms. “Being without company,” or, “cut off from others,” the Merriam-Webster Dictionary offers, woefully inadequately, especially for those of us who have experienced what is perhaps the worst strain of loneliness: feeling lonely in a crowd of people, amongst good friends, or—perhaps the bleakest of all—in the company of the person you love or once loved. The dictionary offers “solitary” and “desolate” as synonyms—though these, too, seem wildly off. Some of my least lonely times have been when I’ve been alone, and I’ve had moments of feeling remarkably embraced in some of the most desolate places.
According to the late psychologist and researcher, John Cacioppo, the best antonym to loneliness he was able to come up with was, quite simply, “normal.” As he described in an interview with The Guardian several years ago, “I think loneliness is a bit like pain, hunger and thirst, and we don’t have opposites for them either, except, pain-free, or not hungry, not thirsty. Loneliness is the same way. It protects our social body. Chronic loneliness is harmful; but short-term loneliness can be positive and necessary because it highlights the need for social connections.”
A certain amount of aloneness and even loneliness is manageable, even pleasurable, a bittersweet zone of reflection and distance. But like anything in excess, too much loneliness, or short-term loneliness that becomes chronic, becomes nauseating, overwhelming, toxic; this is when the appetite turns, when the craving for solitude becomes a longing for togetherness, for connection.
Our daughter was born in early spring just as the pale light of winter was gathering strength in the sky, becoming more golden by the day. Buds appeared on trees, birdsong came in through the windows. In the courtyard of our building, a pair of pigeons began building a nest, spending the day flying back and forth with twigs, strings, pieces of brightly colored plastic.
Remarkably quickly, the nest took shape, a craggy bowl tucked securely into the shoulder of a tree. Our second-floor apartment was the perfect height for gazing across and into their nest. Before long, the female was sitting on a collection of eggs, steadfastly warming them, holding vigil.
The chicks hatched soon after our own baby arrived, in those early weeks of struggling to breastfeed, of watching this tiny creature become tinier, of wondering whether or not I should believe the midwife who came to our apartment every few days to weigh the baby and noted, with slowly growing alarm, weight loss rather than weight gain but told us to persevere, to feed drops of expressed breastmilk with a syringe if that was the only thing that worked, who told us our baby had a tongue-tie and that we should get it clipped so she would feed better, of taking our two-week-old baby to an ear-nose-throat specialist who told us there wasn’t much of a tie, after all, but he was willing to cut tongue and lip, too, just in case it would help, of making that decision alone as my partner waited in the empty waiting room due to Covid restrictions, of listening to that specialist grieve colleagues he had already lost in the first few weeks of the pandemic, of sensing his fear, of feeling my own, of holding my daughter on my lap as she bled for the first time in her life, hearing her cries of pain and incomprehension, of going back home to the same feeding problems, a baby who was now too tired and weak to breastfeed no matter how much we tickled her feet, blew on her face, sang and cajoled. Of watching her continue to diminish in size, the whole time watching that mother bird across the courtyard feeding her babies with such ease and instinct and begging her, begging the universe, to channel me just a little bit of her expertise, her ability to care for her young. My own mother’s visit, planned for the birth and the weeks after, had been cancelled due to the pandemic, and now I found myself looking to the pigeon, the only mother who was physically there, for what I knew my own mother would have given me had she been able to be there: companionship, instruction, advice, and reassurance.
But we had our midwife, who told us to persevere, persevere, persevere, and we believed her because she was the only person there, because she was an expert, because going to doctors in those days was a scary thing, a risk for Covid. When we finally could get an emergency appointment with a pediatrician, she looked at our baby, listened to our story, and told us to go home and feed our child a bottle, immediately.
I will never forget how our daughter gulped down that bottle, hungrily, desperately, joyously. It seemed like the first time she had ever really eaten, consuming more in one sitting than she had in entire 24-hour periods during the nightmare syringe experience. At last, I felt like the pigeon, successfully providing nourishment to my young. Maybe we would survive.
In those stressful weeks, I also felt like Albert, the young physicist who found himself isolated, lost, and increasingly panicked in Antarctica. He began to stammer, he lost his speech, his memory faltered. It was some days after our first trip to our new doctor, after that first bottle, that our friends, standing in the courtyard below our window, remarked it seemed like I was doing much better. I was speaking more clearly, they said. Using complete sentences. They could understand me again. I didn’t realize they hadn’t been able to, but I wasn’t surprised. Like Albert, my mind and my speech had been obstructed by grief and anxiety. I had been in a cold, dark, lonely place—scared of everything, scared of myself.
I think of loneliness’s ability to spark the imagination, and I think of that pigeon. She really did become my friend in those weeks, my guide, and even if she was completely unaware of my existence, I will always remember hers.
An official report of the Belgica journey, published by the Belgian government in 1904, describes the state of anguish, even insanity, that can be brought on by the combination of isolation, confinement and fear: “One sailor had fits of hysteria which bereft him of reason. Another, witnessing the pressure of the ice, was smitten with terror and went mad at the spectacle of the weird-sublime and in dread of pursuing fate.”
One of these men, Adam Toleffsen, had been considered amongst the most experienced and dependable sailors of the group going into the trip, but some months in, after the death of one of the ship’s officers, Toleffsen began exhibiting signs of extreme mental distress. As Julien Sancton writes in his book about the expedition, Madhouse at the End of the Earth, “Tollefsen’s protuberant eyes darted nervously at every creak of the hull, every pop in the ice. He experienced ferocious headaches and kept his thickly bearded jaw clenched at all times, as if bracing for imminent disaster. Tollefsen grew so suspicious of the other crew members that he retreated to dark corners of the ship. He avoided the forecastle at night and slept instead in the freezing hold, among the rats, without a bedcover or proper winter clothes.”If loneliness is an iceberg, motherhood is Antarctica. We have so much to learn from the pioneers who came before us and an immense responsibility to become pioneers ourselves.
Eventually, Toleffsen was put under constant watch, looked after by Jan Van Mirlo, a crew member who had himself experienced and recovered from a psychotic episode. Toleffsen remained in a deeply disturbed state for the rest of the trip, considered a risk to himself and others. One of the few things that brought him comfort was writing letters to his wife, Agnes, which he would bury under a mound of snow he was convinced was a mailbox. Faithfully, his fellow sailors dug these frozen pages out so that the next time Toleffsen had a letter to post he was assured the previous one had been sent.
Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explores the dance between loneliness and imagination in her memoir, Alone in Antarctica. Early in her trip, Aston realized that the mental challenge of skiing across the continent was going to prove much harder than the physical one. For the first time in her life, Aston found herself doubting her own sanity, facing the reality that solitude could prove lethal.
In one of the lowest, coldest, scariest moments of her fifty-nine day journey, she found herself engaging in a conversation with the sun. Not a hypothetical or comical conversation, but a sincere exchange. It brought relief, companionship—and worry. Aston thought back to what a psychologist had told her before the trip: that as long as she realized any hallucinations weren’t real, she’d be fine.
Yet here she found herself in a bind. She knew, on some level, that her conversations with the sun were not real. On the other hand, she was convinced that if the sun sensed her doubt, it would abandon her. “The thought of days without sun to give contrast, without a guiding light to navigate by, filled me with disproportionate dread,” she writes. “I would do anything to insure against a return to those dreadful days of dimensionless gloom. I apologized earnestly to the sun and tried to erase all thoughts of the psychology of my developing friendship.”
And here, when Aston fully embraces the companionship offered by the sun, her descriptions of all that is around her become dazzling, hallucinogenic in their beauty, much like the descriptions written by Cook, another pioneer in loneliness, more than century earlier. As Aston writes:
I turned my face towards the incandescent light and felt its warmth. Irrespective of the reality of the voice in my head, I couldn’t doubt that the use was at least a real physical presence, one that warmed not just my skin but my spirit. My whole body rejoiced in the relief of a sun-filled day. Nothing strange in that, but here it made a difference between contented endurance and a desperate struggle. As if to signify my forgiveness, a prismatic halo circled the sun. The halo branched into a mirror image of itself at each pint of the compass, like four multi-colored smiles. And at each point of contact a flare of rainbow light marked the spot. My heart lifted to meet the spectacle but then soared as I noticed the optics had widened even further, spreading a pale band of light around the sky directly above my head, so that I had to spin 360 degrees in order to see it all. The sun sat in the middle of the arrangement like the crowning jewel of a celestial diadem.
The sun continued to accompany Aston on her journey across Antarctica, and even back home. In what she describes as a legacy of her time alone, to this day she continues her communion with the sun, waving at it and sending it mental messages, refusing to abandon it in the name of reason.
It is difficult to predict how a person will react to extreme conditions: Antarctica, motherhood, a pandemic. Sometimes the bravest sailor will be the one to lose his mind, the most enthusiastic mother will also be the most fearful, the introvert will find the greatest connection, the extrovert will become the most desolate.
According to Lawrence Palinkas, one of the scientists who has spent most of his career trying to understand the effects of isolation in places like Antarctica, humans are nothing if not reliable mysteries in the many studies that have been done. “Our analyses of the human experience in Antarctica suggest that there are few, if any, traits that serve as useful predictors of performance during the austral winter.” Yet despite all the hardship, most people who winter-over in Antarctica thrive, he says, leaving the experience feeling more alive, more awake, than they ever did before.
When children are young, we count their lives in months. Every day, every week, is full of so much change and discovery that it would be almost meaningless to skip the months and go only by years. At six months, a child is almost nothing like she was at birth, she is not yet anything close to what she will be at one. I find myself wistful about this, wishing that adults still had a reason to count their own lives in months, that life would continue to be full of such exhilarating transformation that when people asked how old I was I would reply: five hundred and forty-four months, thank you very much.
Scientists who spend long periods of time in Antarctica also count their time in smaller increments. There is a big difference between the first month of a winter spent on base and the seventh. They count in months because their time is limited, but also because it is so full of discovery and change. The intensity of it, including the isolation and loneliness, is what makes it challenging but also precious.
“Loneliness is like an iceberg,” said researcher John Cacioppo. “We are conscious of the surface but there is a great deal more that is phylogenetically so deep that we cannot see it.”
If loneliness is an iceberg, motherhood is Antarctica. We have so much to learn from the pioneers who came before us and an immense responsibility to become pioneers ourselves—as Antarctica melts, as ideology divides, as we raise the next generation. Exploring the contours and depths of loneliness, this mysterious and universal human condition, is key as we grapple our way forward; as we take steps in the dark, seek out the light, and continue to try to understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us.