Being Alone is Almost as Good as Being Together

Whenever I talk to friends on the phone these days, their greatest wish is to have alone time. Those of us who live, work, attend school, eat all our meals, and socialize only with our nuclear families crave alone time. In my family, it is a rare gift to be in an empty house and each of us relishes the quiet moments when they happen.

The other profound desire my friends share with me is to spend time with people they love (not their immediate families) in person. They want to go out to dinner with friends, to sit with them in a cafe warming up after a long walk, and sip cardamom rose lattes together. They want to carpool to the mountains for a hike and talk on the way with the windows closed and masks off.

We want to be alone and we want to be together. We need both things. The other evening I picked up my daughter from her high school soccer practice. She’d missed dinner so when she got home I waited for her to finish showering and planned to sit with her while she ate. I called down to her that dinner was on the table but she didn’t come. Eventually, I went down to her room to see what was up. “I was waiting for you to go to bed,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied, genuinely surprised, “I thought you’d be lonely eating all by yourself.” We laughed a bit at our different perspectives. She craved the experience of eating alone and I assumed that she’d want company.

We’re forced to be together, but not necessarily with the people we want to be with. Many of us no longer have jobs where we got to see people every day, where we can have conversations, maybe go out to lunch or drinks after work. Back then our days were harried. By the end of the long day, we were relieved and grateful to go back to the comfort of our familiar home base, to the comfortable nest of our families.

What we lack now is the “moving away from” part of the equation. Because we cannot leave the nest, it is hard to find the satisfaction that comes from coming back to our familiar territory. Our home base is the same day in and day out, an eternal groundhog’s day.

We are out of balance, lacking the symbiotic vitality that comes from sharing space with others at work, school, and while socializing. The experiences that come from being out in the world — the exteriority — make our lives rich and exciting and maybe a little bit uncomfortable, and that’s what makes us want to come home again. Our home is a respite from the exteriority, a place of retreat where we can regenerate and prepare to go out into the world again.

Right now we are missing the chaos that we knew in our lives before, the hustle-bustle that balanced the familiarity of home. To feel balanced we have to create excitement somewhere else. In the absence of an exteriority, we have to create this excitement in our interiority.

Imagine a double beam balance, like the scales of justice. On one side is our interiority and on the other side our exteriority. Our interiority is formed in large part by the experiences we have with our exteriority. We process and digest information from our experiences out in the world then reformulate them into something that makes sense for our lives. An internal conversation takes place. What do I think about that? How do I feel about that? What am I going to do about that?

Right now, for many of us, the side of interiority is weighted much more than the side of exteriority. I can see this especially in my teenager who, at a different time in our history, would be spending 95% of her emotional and physical time and energy in the exteriority.

She is rebalancing. We all are. We have to reconfigure our interiority, find ways to move outside of ourselves even when we cannot physically go outside of ourselves.

I wonder if this is what my daughter was doing when she told me that she wanted to eat alone. She wanted something different. She didn’t want to sit at the table and eat with her family like she always does. She wanted time with herself — maybe to daydream about days past or fantasize about when school opens up sometime in the future.

I have felt my own interiority expanding too. My inner world is all I have some days. Being alone feels different now. I don’t long for social activities like I did at the beginning of the pandemic. I’m far more content sitting with myself, entertaining myself with whatever activity I feel drawn to at the moment whether it is taking a walk, catching up on bills, or writing.

The absence of places where we can be together — work, restaurants, movies, gyms, with our friends, at school — has made being alone a necessity. But it’s also created a different relationship with aloneness — a lovely place, one where we are more comfortable lingering for a while. I understand why my friends want to be alone. In some ways, it’s almost as good as being together.

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