It’s bad enough to be physically separated in these days of social isolation. But it’s worse if we feel psychologically isolated too. Even in normal times, I often feel that I am all alone. Then there are precious moments when I know that I am not alone, but deeply connected with others in some mysterious and wonderful way.
Perhaps all of us have felt at some time in our lives that we were “the only one.” We know the illusion that creates of our separateness from others. But there are many ways to overcome this paralyzing sense of estrangement from life. I found one in an unexpected source—numbers. In Yoko Ogawa’s touching novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, the math professor presents the housekeeper and her son with a list of all the primary numbers up to one hundred and asks them what they see.
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97.
The boy, Root, who always feels different and notices the one who’s different, points out, “2 is the only one that’s even.”
The professor says, “You’re right. Two is the only even prime. It’s the leadoff batter for the infinite team of prime numbers after it.”
“That must be awfully lonely,” the boy says.
“Don't worry,” says the professor, “if it gets lonely it has lots of company with the other even numbers.”
As a person of mixed ancestries, I have often been in situations in which I visibly stand out. And from this physical difference people make assumptions that I am different from them in other ways. Like number 2, the only even number amidst a bunch of odd numbers, these experiences leave me feeling lonely. But as a child I reached out and found connections—with Glen, who was called “mentally retarded;” with Carl, the one Jewish boy in town; with Emily, the only girl who lived on a farm; with Andy, the boy whose father was called the “town drunk.”
This discovery of unanticipated and unexpected connections has become a common story in my life. I know that external borders can be huge impediments to unity. But borders and also be self constructed. There have been many times when I have felt like the number 2, as if I am the only one, with the difference, glaringly, uncomfortably, or even painfully obvious. Even though I know that I belong as much as others, and may even be the leader, at times I still have felt lonely.
In these instances I have sometimes asserted my right to be there, telling others that I was as much a member as they are. And I discover that there are others in the group who also feel that they are the only one, for completely different reasons, like the number right next to me, 3, who is the only one who follows an even number. Or 11, the only one with two of the same digit. Or I might go outside the group to find company, as 2 could to connect with the even numbers. For a mixed ancestry person it can get more complicated if you are seen as neither odd nor even.
In the stories in my book When Half is Whole, people speak to this way of finding community. Marshall uses the expression, “I cut across borders as if they have no meaning,” to describe his assertive way of seeking company in multiple communities—Jewish, Korean, transnational adoptee, Japanese, and more. Wei Ming encourages us to not be divided by race, gender, sexauality, and to connect with multiple, overlapping communities of people and to make the circle bigger and bigger. Peter contacts Vietnam veterans to connect them with Vietnamese immigrants in healing communities. Mitzi’s concept of Blackinawan brings together the multiple communities to which she finds connection—existing communities, black, Okinawan, and a community she actively constructs, Blackinawan. Rudy’s self-definition of Mexipino evokes the essence of mestiza consciousness which challenges popular notions of identity, seeing its complexity and focusing on inclusion rather than on divisive politics of exclusion based on traditional categories that diminish our humanness.
Like the boy Root in the novel, I think I almost always notice the odd man out. And at first I thought that 2 was the loneliest number—its difference is striking. But if we use our imagination we can see that there are multiple connections with others. And I know that while it might look lonely there, 2 is not helpless, why it’s even the leader of the pack. And as the professor says, “if it gets lonely, 2 can find lots of company.”
The discovery of inter-connectedness is a common story for many of us, empowering us to work to overcome external borders to unity, as well as self-constructed borders to compassion. We often hesitate to engage and retreat into solitude, which can be essential for our growth. But now is also a time for reaching out to others in ways that reassure you and your friend that you are not alone.