Elie Wiesel on the Loneliness of Leadership, How Our Questions Unite Us, and How Our Answers Divide Us
“Could it be that questions are the remedy for solitude? After all, we have learned from history that people are united by questions. It is the answers that divide them.”
By Maria Popova
“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” Louise Bourgeois wrote to a friend in contemplating how solitude enriches creative work. But solitude — the most creatively fecund kind of which the psychoanalyst Adam Philips termed “fertile solitude” — is only one flavor of aloneness. The physical state of being alone can also be colored by the dramatically different psychic conditions of isolation and loneliness.
In a beautiful forgotten essay titled “The Loneliness of Moses,” only ever published in the out-of-print 1998 anthology Loneliness (public library), Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928–July 2, 2016) examines one particularly profound face of loneliness — the loneliness of leadership.
Wiesel begins with the general problem of loneliness:
The tragedy of the human condition is that in essential matters we are condemned to be alone. One may attempt to reach out, but the attempt is rarely successful. What is worse than being each other’s jailer? It is to be one’s own prisoner.
He considers the two primary kinds of aloneness — solitude, which can be a wellspring of self-discovery and can provide vital energy for creative work, and isolation, which has historically been used as a tool of oppression. Wiesel contrasts the two:
Generally, solitude and isolation go together. Yet there is a subtle difference between them. Solitude is often voluntary, whereas isolation is not… Isolation is compulsory, close to imprisonment, whereas solitude is sought by poets, painters, musicians, dreamers — in other words, creators. Criminals isolate themselves in their crimes, but poets free themselves and their words through and with their solitude.
Wiesel points to the characters of the Bible — “a reflection of timelessness in time,” replete with secular wisdom on the art of living — as archetypal representations of the most abiding human problems, but above all the problem of loneliness: in Cain and Abel, the prototypical tragedy of sibling loneliness; in Saul’s solitude as a function of his sadness; in the prophet Elijah, who has fled Jezebel’s wrath into absolute aloneness in the desert; in Job, “locked in his own pain”; and most of all in Moses. Wiesel writes:
I could have chosen any character in the Bible to treat or deal with the problem of solitude in regard to that particular individual, man or woman. But I chose Moses because, of all the biblical characters, Moses is the loneliest. More than his predecessors or followers, his solitude is linked to his extraordinary talents, virtues, and responsibilities as our people’s supreme leader. In fact, he embodies the very concept of leadership with its collective triumphs and personal disillusionments.
He considers the peculiar kind of loneliness inherent to leadership:
Naturally, a true leader cannot function without those whom he or she leads. By the same token, the leader cannot work or live in their midst as one of them. Hence the ambivalence of his or her position. There must be some distance between the leader and those being led; otherwise the leader will be neither respected nor obeyed. A certain mystique must surround the leader, isolating him or her from those whose servant he or she is called upon to be or has been elected to be. Is there a leader, here or anywhere, who does not find time to complain about the terrible solitude at moments of decision?
Wiesel points to Moses — “a man who had endured trials and upheavals, challenges and tragedies” — as a testament to another essential element of leadership: the willingness to not only proactively take the responsibilities that appeal to one’s ambitions, but to accept and rise to the responsibilities that fall on one by unwilled or unwelcome circumstance. He writes:
Here is Moses’s singularity. A man of the situation, he was always there when needed, and then he gave himself completely to his task. He had no ambition to become a prophet, but once he became one, he was the greatest. He did not seek the role of political or military leader, but once he took it on, he was the best. Philosophers would say that if a human being is what he or she becomes, Moses was a human being par excellence.
And yet, Wiesel suggests, the most lonely-making of the prophet’s trials is how God tends to leave most of his questions unanswered. He considers the possible moral of Moses’s story:
Could it be … that questions are more important than answers? … Could it be that questions are the remedy for solitude? After all, we have learned from history that people are united by questions. It is the answers that divide them.
Complement Wiesel’s contribution to the altogether illuminating Loneliness with this timeless, increasingly timely Nobel Prize acceptance speech about speaking up against injustice, then revisit Virginia Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity and Olivia Laing’s exquisite inquiry into the art of being alone, which crowned the best books of 2016.
Published May 29, 2017