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The Last Person on Planet Earth

It hovers around the room, this helplessness, this vulnerable, horrible loneliness that makes us all so human

 


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hey sit curled up, perched on stools,or lying flat at all angles across the large gym, writing, writing, writing.

The task for this week’s writing class is to describe being the last person on planet Earth. I watch them, a group of 11th-graders. There are scrunched foreheads, wrinkled brows, and moving, jittery fingers. I feel something dense in the air. An intensity I can’t seem to place.

After a while, I herd them back to the classroom, where they share what they’ve written. I hear about the wind whistling through the trees and about the overwhelming silence. I hear about the ownerless property; the sad, lonesome world; the standstill of traffic and the ghostly stillness.

Then I hear about the stumbling, groping through the darkness to find anyone, any soul to talk to, to communicate with. A yearning for a wisp of humanity, of warmth, of life. About the isolation, being trapped in a world so big. About feeling so misplaced.

They’re beautiful pieces, but I hear something more. There’s something veiled there, something so vast and deep I can only breathe the slightest whiff of it. A tendril of their own longing, perhaps, in their very real lives. Of feeling so alone, stumbling through a world so deceptive and gray, of yearning to communicate in a world that often seems cold and harsh.

I want to reassure them, tell them it’s okay. That sometimes the world seems dark and lonesome and unkind. That sometimes, even though there are millions of people walking the planet, you feel like you’re the only one. That the world often seems ghostly, when the golden hues of sunset fade in that twilight moment before complete darkness, when everything is misty and gray, and the shadows grow shrouded and black.

There are times when everything just falls away, dwindles with autumn chill. When you’re stumbling, clutching for someone, anyone, to talk to. When people who are supposed to be trustworthy slip into the mist, and trust seems to be as elusive as the warmth the world should be filled with. When boundaries become hazy, and life is a tangled mess of grays and maybes and confusion. When friends turn their backs, or a family breaks apart, or when a sister becomes a robotic stranger, cold and aloof. When an illness takes a loved one, and the world suddenly seems devoid of people.

But this feeling that is woven through humanity, linking us all with such a delicate thread, is also so elusive. It is too dangerous to be caught in hand, opened and examined. It stays silent, a haze of fog slipping silently through the dark night, touching the heart with icy fingers, then disappearing as the cold consumes.

No one wants to talk about social isolation, no one wants to mention a family feud; eye contact becomes sporadic when sharing the shouts, the tears, the smoke and blackness of trying to connect with an estranged sibling. And so we live, each person encaged in their lonesome world.

I stand before the class, listening to their pieces, my fingers clenched hard. I can’t seem to find words to unveil this thread, which is sometimes more like a binding, strangling rope. It hovers around the room, this helplessness, this vulnerable, horrible loneliness that makes us all so human. It dips and dives, then evades us all, mocking us.

And because I’m their English teacher, I comment on their writing, I correct the grammar, straighten some similes, advise on their structure. And then I continue reading some more pieces aloud. I read far more examples than we usually go through. I can’t seem to stop; it becomes something of desperation. I want them to know that there are others, people they are surrounded by daily, who share the same loneliness and bewildering sense of isolation. I want this knowledge to penetrate their subconscious, to strike a chord somewhere in their groping, stumbling hearts.

And perhaps, I want myself to know it, too.

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 660)

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