“If you can’t eat by yourself, how do you expect to have a baby by yourself?”
“I can eat by myself!”
“When have you ever?”
“When certain people leave the table and I am not finished!”
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I’ve been watching a lot of Friends lately–I’m in the process of making it through all ten seasons of the show. In fact, I’m nearly to the end of the last season and will probably have a crisis of identity and livelihood once I’m finished–in the words of one of my current roommates: “They’ve become your friends.” Uh. Yeah. Basically.
Friends aside, I’ve also recently been thinking a lot about the concept of being alone. I just moved to a new city and though I know my temporary roommates and occasionally do things with them, we’re all busy and have different interests. More often than not, I’ve been finding myself doing my own thing in my spare time–going out and visiting new places on my own, exploring DC and the area around it.
Naturally, being the writer I am, when I spend a lot of time thinking about something, I usually turn to eventually writing those thoughts out. Given my current affinity for Friends, when I sat down to write a post about what it means to be alone, I couldn’t help but think of the above conversation between Ross and Rachel when they are discussing the prospect of having and caring for their accidentally-conceived baby in season 8.
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I’m caught up in pondering about this subject in the first place because the more time I spend doing things alone, the more I’m realizing how weird people find this to be–and not just on 90’s TV sitcoms. I first took notice of this “spending time alone is weird” phenomenon back when I traveled to Vientiane, Laos by myself for a couple days–a man there asked if I was married and seemed shocked when I told him that, not only was I single, but I was traveling solo. I dismissed this instance as one of cultural differences–Asian societies tend to be much more communal than western cultures. Furthermore, the gender gap in Southeast Asia is larger than in most western countries so the concept of solo female anything is much less common and well-accepted.
However, my curiosity about this phenomenon has only peaked since then. I’m noticing now, as I’m going out and exploring my adopted city on my own, that even people in the west–where we tend to pride ourselves far more on individuality than eastern cultures do–perceive solo traveling, adventuring, and wandering as strange. Since moving to DC, people have expressed surprise and curiosity when I’ve told them that I’m out exploring the city on my own. I’ve received strange looks from people in family or friend groups in passing. I’ve been flirted with and seduced by men much older than I am all because I’m alone and must therefore want/need a companion (which is quite a tale in itself–for another day). Someone recently told me they were impressed by the way I spent the fourth of July exploring Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington, on my own.
The thing is, though–what I’ve recently come to realize–is that, yes, we tend to pride ourselves like crazy on individuality in the west…but the desire to spend time alone is not the same as the desire to be individual.
It’s completely and totally possible–and very common–to have individual interests, style, and aspirations while simultaneously giving little or no thought to the concept of alone time.
The bottom line–what I’ve really come to conclude from these experiences and my own struggles with loneliness in Thailand–is that people are uncomfortable with the idea of doing things alone.
That’s another catch–doing things alone. I’ve never had problems with hanging by myself at home–reading a book, writing, watching TV. That’s all very second nature to me. However, the prospect of actually going out, going to a museum, wandering around a new city, traveling–the concept of doing all of that alone is somehow different. It’s something I never used to do. It’s something many other people aren’t used to doing either. Humans are social creatures. When we go places, we want to share those experiences with others. We want to fill our lives with people that matter to us and include those people in as many situations as possible…and if they’re not available, we just don’t do anything. Case in point: one of my college friends asked me to go on a trip with him earlier this year. When I politely declined, stating that I was saving my money to move to DC, he opted out of the trip entirely. Of course, having been exposed to solo travel while in Thailand and embarking on some of it myself, I couldn’t help but wonder–this friend has plenty of vacation time from his work and he genuinely seemed interested in visiting the place he asked me to visit with me–why in the world couldn’t he just do it himself?
Well, because people don’t like doing things alone.
For so many years, being alone has been looked down upon in popular culture and literature. Take Friends for instance–Rachel is comically slighted because she never does anything alone–but let’s be real here, when do we ever actually see any of the friends alone? And for how long? On screen space is usually shared by at least two of them, if not more. To be frank, when does doing anything alone come across as positive in popular culture. Off the top of my head, the phrase “drinking alone” brings to mind sad images of a sad person without any friends (on that note, I’m drinking a beer as I write this and I am very much by myself).
Why is being alone perceived with such negativity in our society?
Why don’t people like doing things alone?
What is wrong with being alone?
When it all comes down to it, we are most uncomfortable with ourselves. We know ourselves best. We know our faults and our struggles and those bad habits we have that we despise. We see our faults and look for people to accompany us in this life thing who will love us despite those faults, who will remind us of all the good we still have in us.
It is only human to want to be loved, to be cherished, to be understood, to be appreciated.
In the twenty-first century, it is easier than ever to find like-minded people who will be there for us and it is easier than ever to keep in touch with these people. Technology and social media allows us to always be connected to others, even when we’re physically a part.
I would argue that, as a result of this, technology and social media have also succeeded at keeping us from ourselves.
How can we possibly truly be alone if we’re always connected to the outside world in someway?
How can we possibly learn to love and embrace ourselves when we’re never truly alone?
I mentioned in a weekend coffee share a few weeks back that my time in Thailand helped me conquer my fear of loneliness. I truly believe it did. My greatest fear before going to Thailand was finding myself in a situation where I didn’t feel connected to people, where I felt isolated, where I was incredibly and completely lonely.
In my placement, I experienced all of these feelings. Life in my placement was unpleasant. Even though there was so much I loved about Thailand, I was severely unhappy in my life and felt off the entire time I was there. Feelings that I brushed off as culture shock at first only continued and worsened until I felt completely debilitated by my situation. It was hard. I was lonely. I didn’t feel like living there was the right thing for me. I wanted to go home.
As much as that life was hard for me, though, as much as I wanted out when I was in it, I’m continually grateful for the hardships I experienced there. The loneliness I experienced there. The negative self-image I had towards myself and the lack of life I felt within me.
Life was hard, yes, but I also emerged stronger. I emerged with not only a better understanding of my weaknesses but a full tool kit to combat those weaknesses.
I emerged no longer afraid of loneliness.
I emerged with the understanding that being alone is so much more valuable than people realize. I realized that, while I learned so much from the friendships and relationships I made in Thailand, it wasn’t until I spent quality time alone that I was able to process and understand that new knowledge and properly apply it to myself and my life.
Now, I continue on my journey in this new city by myself. I have friends and family supporting me, but I am solely responsible for myself, for creating the life I want to live. I will make more friends in time, this I am confident of. I will develop lasting and meaningful relationships in this city that will fill my life with joy and lift me up.
However, I will also not shy away from solo adventures and explorations.
After all, how can I expect to be fully content in life if I’m not fully aware and appreciative of myself?
Our society as a whole could really learn a thing or two about that.
Rachel probably could, too–perhaps not in the specific act of raising her baby, mind you–but in other, less strenuous moments of life.