On Being Alone
May 5th, 2010

I love going out to dinner.  More than that, I love going out to dinner and eating delicious food.  More than that, I love going out to dinner, eating delicious food, and sharing equally delicious conversation with interesting people.  On Saturday night I did all those things.

Last weekend the Family P was treated to a visit from GAP’s sister and her husband.  It was a visit that had been on the books for a couple of months and I was eagerly looking forward to it.  Nothing about the weekend disappointed, least of all the dinner conversation.

As we sat at one of my favorite French joints we covered all manner of topics, from reading, to writing, to careers, to travel, to… loneliness.  Loneliness?  Well, aloneness is probably more accurate.  We talked about the experience of being alone.  Whether at home, in your office, while traveling, or any other place, being alone with yourself is an experience that everyone handles differently.

What surprised me most about this conversation was learning that my brother-in-law, who is probably the single most extroverted person I’ve ever known, cherishes being alone.  For someone who takes to people – new or familiar – as easily as he does, I never figured him for a guy who’d want anything other than being surrounded by people.  But as I thought about it more, it began to make sense.  Someone whose natural charisma is so strong that people gravitate to him unconsciously might have a hard time finding opportunities to be alone.  Those quiet moments might be few and far between.  I don’t know this – it is merely my conjecture.  But it makes sense to me.

Our conversation made its way around the table as we each confessed our comfort level with the solitary state.  It was interesting listening to everyone’s perspective on the topic and it’s been stuck in my head ever since.

In thinking about our lives there is an ebb and flow to the amount of alone time we have.  Childhood rarely leaves us alone – we are supervised, accompanied, and chaperoned.  Early adulthood provides the opportunity for quite a bit of time alone, should we choose to avail ourselves of it.  Marriage and parenthood see it diminish.  But twenty-some-odd years later when the nest empties, time to ourselves comes rushing back.  Nevertheless, despite the cyclical nature of aloneness in our lives, our need for it is constant.

I think.

The need for aloneness seems like the sort of thing that would be universal.  I assume that we all need time without the input of other people.  Time to be uninfluenced.  Time to be silent.  Time to spend as we choose, wholly independent of the preferences of others.  Yet I know that there are people who find it uncomfortable to be alone.  There are people who fear being in public alone – dining or move-going without a companion.  There are people who go out in public alone in order to find other people and prevent themselves from being alone.  And there are people who feel the most alone in the midst of a crowd.

I wonder what our attitudes about aloneness say about us.  Is there a perfect amount of aloneness - some magic place on the continuum that gives us the most peace and space while still allowing us to be connected to other people?  And I wonder what influence our habits about solitude have on our relationships.  If we spend too much time alone does our ability to bond and relate atrophy?  Conversely, without enough time alone do we lose our grasp on our true self, being constantly shaped and molded by the people around us?

In this, as in all things human, I know that we are different.  We come to these questions via disparate paths.  We bring our stories and experiences to the table.  And we (maybe) share them in order to explain why we are as we are.  Or maybe we don’t.  Maybe we let people wonder what made us this way; why we love being alone, or why we don’t.

10 Responses to “On Being Alone”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I love being alone. I absolutely love it, and never feel I get enough time that way. Your brother-in-law doesn’t surprise me – many of the most conventionally extroverted people I know are actually very much that way. In my professional life I interact with people all day long and I think that contributes to how much I crave time alone, without anybody talking to or at me. I have written about this before, and personally find feeling alone while surrounded by others to be far, far more lonely than simply being by myself. I do think there is a lot to learn from how we all feel about being alone, lonely, and the various permutations of those things.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Loner, here! Raising my hand!

    And dang, with two small children? Forget about it. I can’t even pee by myself.

    One phrase struck me–”there are people who feel most alone in a crowd.” That’s me! Completely! I think maybe that’s why I hate crowded events/busy places. How odd that it never clicked with me before.

  3. Nicki Says:

    I love being alone – alone with a book, alone with my thoughts, alone on a run, alone with a glass of good wine. I love equally being with people, though.

  4. Anne Says:

    I can relate to what Lindsey says about her work…mine involves meeting with people ALL DAY and talking and conversing a TON, so I cherish my alone time. Need my alone time. And am totally comfortable with it. BUT…when I go hours or even a day or two without any contact with others? I can begin to feel drained in an entirely different way. It’s relating to people that helps me crystallize the thougths I have on my own, and make those thoughts real and complete.

  5. Eva Says:

    This is a rich topic, Gale. Where to start?

    I love having a day or an afternoon alone. I love having complete control over how I choose to spend those hours, rather than discussing and compromising with Husband. But by the end of an alone day, I’m ready to be social again. I think I have my limits for both – alone time and together time.

    I’m generally uncomfortable being alone at a restaurant, movie, etc. I think it has to do with my self-consciousness. It’s not that I don’t enjoy myself, I just really overthink what other people think about me being alone. Does that make sense?

    Finally, I love time to be silent! I love being alone and quiet, often no music in the background. Husband on the other hand always needs ambient noise of some sort.

  6. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Gale.

    Growing up, I played by myself a fair amount, but as I got older, I loved being with other people more and more. Now, though, as the mother of two young children, I find alone time hard to come by and I crave it far more than I crave social interaction with other adults. It seems to me that, even in my kid-free days when I thought I preferred to be with others, I actually had plenty of opportunity to be alone – so it was actually a balance I sought. Now, when the company I most often keep is under three feet tall, I recognize how important alone time and space is to me.

  7. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Fascinating topic. I am one of those odd birds who does not like being alone. I have never eaten dinner in a restaurant alone. I hate it when Husband travels and the girls are in bed and I am alone in a silent home. Interestingly, I have chosen to walk a professional path (writing) that demands the deepest of solitude. What is writing but sitting down – and alone – and putting words to paper or screen? Interestingly (and I hadn’t thought of this before now, so thanks), I think I have fallen so hard for blogging because it allows me to write, but in a less alone way. In this blog world, we are never alone, are we?

  8. Eva @ EvaEvolving Says:

    Now, as I’m re-reading this a day later, I wonder if some of our preference for alone time also stems from our childhood. Specifically, did we have siblings? A lot of siblings? I was an only child for many years, and I think that made me feel okay with being alone. With finding my own entertainment. But in another person, being an only child could actually make you hate alone time. Interesting stuff, as always Gale!

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