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Being With Yourself: Lessons in Lone Ranging

by Colette Bernhardt Feb 11, 2010
Spending Valentine’s Day alone need not be a horrible depressing ordeal. Instead, it can be rejuvenating and liberating.

Singletons. If you fancy eating out this Sunday, don’t bother. Restaurants everywhere will be dispensing with their normal menus and serving overpriced, five-course dinners to twosomes, many of whom will be joined at hip and lip. Yes, Valentine’s Day approaches, and with it the grim stench of solitude for all us unattached people. No wonder they call it VD.

But what if we stopped believing the endless hype churned out by ad agencies and dating websites? What if we consider that being by ourselves can actually be enjoyable?

Beyond the Marketing Campaign

One-person homes are now more common than ever, comprising 27% of US households and 29% of UK households. Still, the media message blares forth: Happiness comes not only from having a long-term partner, but also by continually surrounding yourself with a fabulous array of friends. Sites like Facebook and Twitter make it virtually impossible to entirely escape other humans.

With these thoughts in mind, I join 21 others for the simply titled How To Be Alone workshop at London’s School of Life. The School of Life includes a new bookshop and social enterprise with the aim of teaching attendees “all the things you never learned at school” through lectures, discussions, meals and trips, all of which delve voraciously into philosophy, art and psychology.

No One Wants To Be Stuck Alone With A Boiled Egg

Leading the session is Naomi Alderman, award-winning novelist and a convert to single living after years of feeling terrified of being alone. Once she left her door always unlocked so she could always come home to friends (or burglars). Now she appreciates the delights of solitude espoused by such luminary loners as the 19th century writer Thoreau, who spent two years by himself in a Massachusetts forest, discovering he has “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude”.

In medieval Britain, almost every village had either a hermit — usually male and living out in the sticks — or a recluse, generally female and stationed at the edge of a neighborhood. Quiet and content in their stillness, these lone dwellers were considered deeply wise and often divine.

But, explains Naomi, this changed in the 1500s with the closing of the monasteries and the rise of Protestantism. Seen as a relic of Catholicism, hermits were now eyed with suspicion and linked to dark forces. To a degree, this stigma still continues today, with solitary individuals frequently viewed as weirdos, even serial killers in the making.

Thankfully, no one at the workshop appears notably murderous, and when Naomi asks us to form small groups for discussion, it seems we solo types have a lot to say. One woman imagines that everyone else in London is having a ball while she is “stuck at home with a boiled egg.” Another confesses to frequently telling her friends she is busy, when in fact she just wants an evening to herself doing nothing.

Being Alone Vs Being Lonely

Everyone agrees that being alone and being lonely are entirely different things. One is forced upon us. The other is a choice. If you spend Saturday night alone watching a DVD because that’s what you want. Great! If it’s because you’ve had no other offers. Not so great.

Naomi encourages us to contemplate the potential benefits of solitude: creativity, inner peace and an increased affinity with nature. She then suggests activities for improving our ability to be alone, including meditation, gardening, and visiting a restaurant by ourselves. There are several protests over this last one. Apparently a table for one still serves as the icon for alone-without-choice.

Naomi also emphasizes the importance of making new friends and proposes numerous ways of doing so in order to spend at least some of our time with others:

“Knowing that you can do solitude and socializing makes each one better.”

Indeed, as with so much of life, the answer lies in balance. There’ will be times when aloneness, as Californian author Anneli Rufus puts it, provides “just what we need, the way tuna need the sea”, and isolation can be truly splendid. There will also be those times we need the comfort and stimulation of other human beings around us.

As we shuffle out the School of Life’s cosy lecture room, a number of us decide to move onto the pub, but we won’t forget what we learned tonight. We are independent spirits. This weekend, we won’t give a monkey’s what those couples are doing as we head to our favorite restaurant with a single-seat table to people watch or read a book or simply enjoy the meal as we dine alone


Embrace the solo spirit with Michaela Lola’s Solo Travel: 6 Reasons to Wander Alone

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