Barry Lopez on the Cure for Our Existential Loneliness and the Three Tenets of a Full Life


“Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place.”


Barry Lopez on the Cure for Our Existential Loneliness and the Three Tenets of a Full Life

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she reflected on the relationship between nature and human nature. But what we call place — that unalloyed presence with a here and now, with the unfolding of time in a locus of space — penetrates more than the mind: it permeates body and spirit and the entire constellation of being. It is not hard to see why Latin was the first Latin word for place. geniusThe phrase genius loci — the spirit of a place. In the crucible that is where we live, we become who and what we really are.

Our minds, however, are born wanderers — perpetual refugees from presence, perpetually paying for their flight with loneliness. We go on forgetting that we are not only embodied creatures, but embodied in the body of the world; we go on forgetting that the here and now — that locus of intimacy with everything and everyone else inhabiting this island of spacetime, intimacy with the pulsating totality of our own being — is our only refuge from the existential loneliness that is the price of being alive.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1887. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

This is the essence of it all Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020) explores in “Invitation” — one of the twenty-six exquisite essays in his posthumous collection Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World (public library).

Drawing on his longtime immersion in indigenous cultures and his lifelong travel with native companions, Lopez counters the hollow stereotype that indigenous people’s connection to place is a sort of “primitive” sensitivity to be contrasted with “advanced” civilization:

This dismissive attitude, which I now understand, overlooks the intangible benefits that physical intimacy might bring to a relationship. I’m inclined to point out to someone who condescends to such a desire for intimacy, although it might seem rude, that it is not possible for human beings to outgrow loneliness. Nor can someone from a culture that condescends to nature easily escape the haunting thought that one’s life is meaningless.

Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A constant renewal of one’s awareness of the infinite complexity and unplumbable beauty of nature, patterns which are always present and easily discernible and that include the observer, can help to diminish the sense that you are alone in the world or that your life is meaningless. It is a sign of our human need to belong and fit in the world.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” from Yaggi’s Geographical Portfolio, 1893. Available as both a printed copy and stationery cards.

The fulcrum for our search for meaning lies in this desire to connect with others. Whitman understood it as soon as he discovered what made life worthwhile after a paralytic stroke. Mary Shelley realized the same thing when in the aftermath of her terrible loss, she sought out what gave meaning to her life. Lopez also knows this, and has found the answer to existential loneliness within our relationship with place.

In my opinion, it is always rewarding to be determined to get to know a place. Every natural location, in my opinion, can be known. A person can sense when they become known that the place is missing them. This reciprocity, the ability to be and know others, strengthens one’s sense of being needed in this world.

The entire book revolves around the theme of “How our relationship with place impacts our life-long relationship.” In another essay from it, titled “An Intimate Geography,” he writes:

Our intimate relationship with the Earth awakens, in a wordless way, an awareness of the primal nature of our attachments to the Earth and our emotions. My own research suggests that this primal connection is experienced as a constant, diffuse, unfeableable pleasure. It can also be described as the relief of a specific kind of longing.

Giuliano cucco, Art for Before I Grew Up By John Miller

Lopez is the ultimate modern anti-Cartesian, reminding us again and again of our creaturely nature, interconnected and indivisible — the life of the mind indivisible from the life of the body, our portable totalities interleaved with the whole of the world. His succinct advice is to overcome the elements of longing and loneliness that are pulsating under our restlessness.

The first rule in everything that we do is paying attention. Maybe the second is patience. A third option is perhaps to pay attention to the body’s needs.

This is a selection of fragments taken from the utterly magnificent Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World. Lewis discusses what we yearn for and provides an illustrated remedy to our elemental loneliness. Next, Lopez on how to create great storytelling and the steps that lead to being a writer.


Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


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