On being alone

14 August 2015

I notice it most when I’m at a restaurant for dinner. When a server first comes to my table or spot at the bar, there’s the almost invariable question, “Expecting someone else?” It’s reasonable and polite of them to ask. But the constancy of the assumption is hard to ignore, as is the almost invariable answer. Nope. I’m not expecting someone else. I’m here on my own.

I spend a lot of time alone. I don’t tend to think of it as something unusual. I grew up used to being alone and carried into adulthood the understanding that was the natural default. However, every so often I’m reminded that it is something unusual. Our society is not well-constructed for a single person, especially a woman. We tend to treat it as a temporary state of misfortune, on the way to something or someone else. A state of difficulty to be struggled through. It’s sometimes hard to be alone, but it’s often even harder to convince the world as a whole that you sometimes want to be alone.

After ten years as a single mother, I know all the different flavors of being alone. I know being alone with a child, which isn’t strictly being alone, but it throws into stark relief the realization of what you, and you alone, are responsible for. There was not another person to take that shift or do that chore. I learned how to do things myself. I went without sleep. I got really good at putting together prefab furniture. I made life work without much help. And I learned that a bit of time to myself was simply, profoundly sweet. Although, when you are suddenly completely alone, it’s disorienting, and you have to figure out what you have beyond the unique aloneness of single parenthood—which might be just being lonely.

I tried seriously to be not alone a couple of times. They did not work out. For various reasons. Learning how to be alone again after the last disastrous attempt took years, and it was tempting to jump directly into another attempt, even another disastrous one. But, as life got easier and more fortunate, I learned how to do other things. I learned how to travel and navigate new places. I learned how to build communities around principles I believed in. I learned how to speak about ideas in front of audiences. I learned how to communicate, and connect, and comprehend. I learned that being used to being alone was not the same thing as genuinely embracing being alone, and that I was finally learning how to do the latter.

Let’s here interject a protestation against the most common myth surrounding being alone: that it is synonymous with “loneliness,” and, therefore, anyone alone must be lonely and in need of rescue from that sorry state. First of all, a bit of true loneliness can be a beautiful, perspective-earning thing. Don’t run from that. But, more importantly, the absence of others does not equal loneliness. It’s opportunity. It’s opportunity to listen to yourself more carefully, certainly. But it’s also opportunity to find those connections with other people that you truly want, that truly grow you, rather than surrounding yourself with noise or distraction because you don’t know what to do without it.

It’s been said, in a variety of ways, by many others, that we are all essentially alone, and we had better get comfortable with that fact, whether we like it or not. It’s also been said that we might not be able to be comfortable with other people if we haven’t first learned how to be comfortable with ourselves. Both of these sayings are entirely, uncomfortably true. Explorers, of either internal or external jungles, can walk with companions, but every one’s journey is their own, in the end. Whether it’s traveling to a different country, adjusting to a different style of daily life, or taking oneself out to dinner, where one is not waiting for anyone else to show up, the important thing is to make your own decision to start.


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