April Feature: The Beauty In Being Alone

Photographs by Mila Phelps-Friedl

There is a difference between being lonely and being alone. Loneliness can creep in at strange moments. Stagnant silence when you wish someone else was speaking. A kind of hollowness or projected feeling when you remember something or one that used to be.

Loneliness can be a point of comparison while aloneness is a state of being.

As human beings, we strive for community. The feeling of belonging is something we psychologically crave. And by no means is this a bad thing — if you’re happiest in a crowd of people, more power to you. However, that doesn’t mean that those who are alone, are doing something wrong.

The great writer Susan Orleans once wrote a piece centered around Saturday nights. What we do during them, why they’re important to us, and, perhaps most significantly, why we feel the need to be social on Saturdays out of all the days of the week. Since she wrote it impeccably better than I could ever paraphrase, ​

“Saturday night is when you do what you want to do and not what you have to do. In the extreme, this leads to what I think of as the Fun Imperative: the sensation that a Saturday night not devoted to having a good time is a major human failure and possible evidence of a character flaw.”

Orleans is perfectly highlighting the very human flaw of comparison, hammered into us since we were birthed as social beings.

* * *

While I lived in Paris, I tried desperately not to compare. But I also faced not belonging to the culture, not always understanding the language, and being a continent away from those I loved the most.

I lived in a tiny, one room apartment with ceiling-high windows and whispery curtains that breathed in French air. I lived on Boulevard de Reuilly, took the Métro line 8 to my classes each day, and despite being constantly surrounded by people — I spent a majority of my time, in varying states of aloneness.

At first it was out of circumstance, and for a while I was both alone and lonely — a combination that’s somehow dreadfully poetic with the cloudy skies and stoic landmarks in the city of lights and love.

However, what started out as circumstantial, slowly became preferential. Eventually, I reveled in the adventures I could savor on my own. With a mask of anonymity and only conversational French as my backup — I found myself in a place that didn’t judge me for taking the time to just be with myself.

I made a game of getting off at a different Métro stop each day. Once I found a castle at the end of a garden, the Seine lapping at my heels across the prettiest bridges.

I went to dinners alone and took myself out to the movies, a familiar kind of solo-activity.

Art museums in Paris provided hours of self-reflection, within inches of Degas' oil pastels — I consider myself incredibly lucky.

There was a moment, as I watched the rain trickle down a statue in the Jardin des Tuileries, that I realized I’d never really given myself the space to find out what I actually enjoyed about my life.

I’d always had stirrings of individuality, but I’d gotten used to feigning excitement over things I didn’t actually care about. And in those moments, I was lonely.

In a crowd of people, with someone I’d loved, even with the closest of friends. I was unhappy in places I might’ve been happy, if I’d just taken a breath, stepped back and looked to see if any of that was where or who I really wanted to be.

Based on the work of University of Chicago social neuroscientist, John T. Cacioppo and his ghost-writer William Patrick, there are three majors factors contributing to how lonely we actually may feel. First, the level of vulnerability we are already feeling, coupled with how socially connected, or disconnected we are from our peers.

The second aspect hinges on our ability to regulate and control our emotions surrounding the response to feeling lonely. If we are sad because we’re alone, do we find something that makes us happy? Or do we choose to wallow, allowing the feeling of rejection or hurt to cloud all impressions of the people or situations around us?

The third is a question of how we are able to reason or come to terms with whatever is making us feel so goddamn lonely in the first place.

According to Ph.D Karyn Hall of Psychology Today, “Feeling lonely does not mean you have deficient social skills, but apparently feeling lonely makes people less likely or able to use the skills they have.” And so Orlean’s “Fun Imperative,” resurfaces in the form of a self-destructive cycle.

We’ve overly associated being alone with being lonely, and learned to count both of them as negative and shameful things.

I’ve come to consider loneliness as an indicator that something may not be right with where I am, rather than that there’s something wrong with me. Because I’m comfortable in the moments I'm alone, I know that if I’m unhappy and I leave — it is unlikely I will be lonely. I trust myself to know what makes me feel like me. And in those moments, I am truly all I need.

A heart is still a heart when it’s not attached to someone else. A person is still whole when they don’t always share themselves with others.

We need to talk about the fact that being alone and being lonely are incredibly different things and we need to recognize that not everyone draws their joy from the constancy of others.

Being alone with yourself and accepting whatever you’ve got, is one of the the most powerful things that you can do — especially in a world that defines social interaction as a measure of maturity, likability and societal significance.

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