On Being Alone

I’ve never quite understood why the masses huddle together, resenting one another, settling for less than wonderful partners, doing whatever possible to squash even the minute possibility of aloneness.

I recently spent a few weeks in New York, alone in a group of twenty-five, alone in a city of 8.6 million. I set out with lofty intentions and, as is usually the outcome, my experience was vastly different than I had imagined it might be. I felt like an outsider in many ways but an insider all the same; I suppose that’s the charm of New York. I didn’t connect with the group I had traveled there with. I was spending my days in various international consulates, wondering whether I was even qualified enough to be party to the conversations I found myself in. On my first full Saturday, I set out with my backpack, my headphones, and some cash for the journey. I walked about eleven miles that day. From the East Village to the West Village to SoHo, NoHo, Chelsea; I didn’t know where I was going but I got where I needed to be. I popped into skincare stores and pastry shops, stopped by coffee carts and street sales. I, inevitably, bought new shoes about three hours into the day.

When I got back to my room that night, I felt alive in a way I hadn’t in years and I was thirsty for more. A group of colleagues were going out to eat, but I declined their invitation and hopped on the train to Little Italy. There, I found the restaurant I had researched and was seated in the back corner of a dimly lit, boisterous, packed-to-the-brim mom and pop Italian restaurant with red and white checkered tablecloths and black and white family photos on the walls. My phone off and put away, I ordered a glass of red, a magnificent bowl of four cheese pasta, and a side of bread. I overheard conversations about upcoming weddings and laughed alongside strangers who recalled the many mishaps of a family reunion years before. As I dipped the last of my bread in the leftover sauce, a girl about my age approached me.

“Can I just say – I hope this is okay – I think you’re amazing. I saw you earlier, just sitting here by yourself with your wine and your pasta and I thought, ‘wow – she must be a celebrity or something, sitting that confidently and that joyfully with herself.’ You look happy. You know what I thought when I saw you? I thought ‘that is a very important woman.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I just hugged her and whispered “thank you.”

I ended that night eating a cannoli in bed and watching Queer Eye on Netflix, vowing silently to myself to continue the journey. Thus began a month of aloneness that took me on a new kind of adventure: an adventure of aloneness. Alone, I went to coffee shops in Brooklyn, an Irish pub in the middle of Times Square, used book stores in SoHo, a Broadway show, Central Park, The Met. The whole time I thought to myself:

How many experiences have I missed out on because I didn’t have someone to come with me?

How many priceless pieces of artwork have I not laid eyes on because no one else wanted to visit the museum? How many beautiful songs has my body not swayed to because no one else was free to go to a concert? How many dishes of pasta have I not eaten because someone else was in the mood for sushi?

We go through our lives in packs; we are made to live together. There is beauty and goodness in relationship. This unfinished testimony is not to say I don’t deeply value the company of others; the culture of togetherness is one that I cherish. The concept of community is a holy one. There are things – many things – not meant to be done alone.

But this fear of aloneness – this desperate clinging to lukewarm company – can’t possibly give us all we need. If the company is draining, isn’t it better to be alone? If the company is patronizing, isn’t it better to be alone? If the company goes out for drinks each night and all you want to do is read… isn’t it better to be alone? Even in those seasons of beautiful community, surrounded by support and love and joy, moments of aloneness are essential for the soul.

Compromise is a necessity; it is vital to our relationships. But if we’re constantly compromising, we eventually can’t help but lose bits of ourselves. If you’re continuously putting yourself on the backburner because you don’t want to be alone, consider the joy in what you might find if you allow yourself to embrace your own company. Otherwise, how can you know that you enjoy yoga if none of your friends are interested in trying it? How can you know you love Spanish cocktails if your partner only ever wants to go to sports bars?

Here comes the part where I challenge you.

I challenge you to do that thing you’ve been wanting to do for a while now – the thing that no one else in your circle is into or the thing that everyone’s been too busy to get to. Maybe you pop in your headphones and explore your neighborhood for the first time and you find yourself a cozy new coffee spot. Maybe you rent a bed and breakfast somewhere outside of the city and bring with you only a stack of books and a bottle of whiskey. Maybe you buy one movie ticket or cook an extravagant meal for yourself.

Whether you’re married or single, living alone or in community, this challenge is for you. Let’s try this whole alone thing…together.