When I moved to New York City after graduating college, people warned me of many things. They talked about the cold winters, the congestion, the high-cost of living, and the stressful nature of life in a hyper-stimulating city. What people failed to mention, or they simply glanced over, is how alone one might be when they go somewhere new, far away from home.
We often overlook being alone, though it’s a necessary component of becoming a functional and capable adult, one who can whether the harsh storms and the winters of life that are certain to come. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a move to a new city, or simply the implementation of new habits that take us away from old peers, being alone is one knock at the door away. It’s a close neighbor. An alley we can certainly make friends with.
Notice I say being alone, because whether we feel loneliness or solitude is in our control. We can be alone without feeling lonely, just as we can feel lonely when we’re with others.
“Why would you want to be alone anyways?” You might ask. “Humans are social creatures,” you might say. It’s true. We’re pack animals. We need people. We thrive by building communities, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and groups. Our identities within them is how we make sense of the world and how we find fulfillment. But despite our need for each other, there still remains a place in our minds, a crevice that can’t necessarily be filled with other humans.
A religious man will tell you this crevice is the need for God. An atheist might tell you it’s simply the existential dread of being human. An agnostic might tell you that’s the void where we find meaning. Whatever definition you choose, that’s the hole that we have to fill when being alone happens. That’s the void you have to fill on sleepless nights when you have to solve problems and come to terms with your thoughts, the anxious and the afraid, all on your own. It’s the same void that has to be filled when a loved one passes away or when your aspirations and needs pull you away from communities, friends, and loved ones.
Lose Everything to Do Anything
There’s an irony that to in order to be a capable companion or lover, there has to be a healthy detachment from the relationship. For a person to say they can’t live without someone, or to set that expectation, is unfair and unrealistic. What an enormous amount of pressure. How could anyone ever live up to the ambition of being the sole bearer of responsibility for the inner fortitude of another person? Even if it’s accomplished successfully, won’t death or illness take away the capacity to bear that responsibility?
A quote from the movie Fight Club says, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” And it’s the truth. Our expectations and wants are our own shackles. “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” says Alexander Pope. Just as the one who seeks refuge and safety in a job, friend, lover, or community will have their earth shattered if those structures are broken or don’t live up to expectations.
But if we’ve learned to live with minimal needs and through self-sufficiency, aren’t we more capable to enjoy and give life’s gifts our all when we have them? They become addition to our lives, ones that we can be vulnerable with, because we trust the strength we’ve built inside of ourselves to be ok if we are to lose any of them. “The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero,” says military strategist and fighter pilot John Boyd.
Whether you are religious or not, the Bible provides wisdom, and it covers topics like loneliness and self-reliance. In 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 it says, “and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
Because if we aren’t dependent, aren’t we more capable to give to others? To be there for them in their time of need? There’s a reason we place the mask over ourselves in an airplane before we help those around us. We have to be capable to protect ourselves before we can get other jobs done, because protecting others is indeed part of our job. And we have plenty of lonely peers that need companionship or help.
When it comes to lonely peers, Author Kevin Vost wrote his own reminder. It says, “Today I will encounter some lonely person, the bereaved perhaps, the newcomer to this city or to this school or place of work, the person who feels left out even within his or her own family, and this person may ignore me, not look me in the eye, not return my greeting, or treat me with suspicion, but I will remember that such people are my brothers and sisters and God has called us to be there for one another. Therefore, I will still make some effort to connect with them even in the smallest of ways to lighten the burden of their loneliness.”
How Do You Learn to Be Alone?
Relocation to a new city or a solo backpacking trip through Europe isn’t possible for everyone. We all have responsibilities and duties to fulfill at home. The idea of needing to be alone might not be something that resonates with you, but we can all build our mental resolves in many ways.
Yoga. Meditating. Swimming. Walking. Religion. Philosophy. There’s many options. I choose to run. I often run without music. I especially do this if I’m aiming to run a longer distance than usual. It’s so I can be alone with my thoughts and come to terms with them. All my fears, anxieties, ambitions, and needs can find resolve through movement. It’s my place to be as honest as possible with the things that go through my mind, and not only come to terms with them, but move past them. Literally.
Sometimes on a run this means I’m thinking the same thought over and over again like a song that’s on a loop. The very physical example of being able to overcome something difficult gives me a literal reminder that I can overcome other difficulties. The common denominator in any difficulty is myself, so I cultivate a context for how to get the job done.
Whichever way you choose to engage being alone, know that it will only strengthen your resolve. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”
Life is long. It’s hard. Some say it’s suffering. If you aren’t forced to be alone now, you will eventually. And just like the many older adults I saw in New York City who live alone and do so with ease — with their laundry list of memories and trials they’ve faced throughout their lives running through their minds — so can you. We’re cut from the same cloth. Humans are highly adaptable. We’re capable of great feats. Being alone is one that you can conquer.