My wife Linda left last Tuesday to go to her high school reunion in Hawaii. I didn’t want to go with her, and she didn’t press me on it. How many days can you devote to making small talk with very nice people you haven’t met before and probably won’t see again? AND I had an ulterior motive: As someone who is seldom alone for more than a few hours at a time, I wanted to experiment with being alone for a week and a day, safe in the knowledge that it was temporary.
Given the statistics on longevity, Linda will likely outlive me, and it will be her job to wrestle with being alone. Still, I could be the one left alone. And I’ve begun wondering how I would handle it.
I have most of the required domestic skills for solo survival because I was the oldest son and also a single parent for so many years. I can cook, clean, and do laundry, shop, mess things up, tidy things up, pay household bills, arrange for events with friends, take psychic nutrition from the serenity of our otherwise unoccupied house, say “no thank you” to lunch and dinner invitations from friends who already think I’m nuts by conducting this experiment, sleep reasonably well alone, and ask for help when I’m feeling isolated. (For me, isolation could be a real problem.)
I began my alone research by observing some of my male friends more closely, and myself during the eight days Linda was away. I discovered several faces of alone.
Conscious aloneness. I have a friend, call him Adam, age 69, in Pennsylvania. His wife died 10 years ago. The right woman hasn’t come along, and through the years I have watched him adapt both his comfort levels and his expectations without abandoning his efforts. Adam has an apartment that’s a kind of nest, comfortable without ostentation of any kind, with book-lined walls and all kinds of recorded music. There is great public transportation nearby and a charming shopping street within walking distance. He has an active social network. Sometimes he is lonely but isn’t undone by being alone. Retired now, Adam meets people when he volunteers and when he travels. He is at one end of what I have come to see as the Alone Continuum, the guy who has for the most part found his place alone and with others.
Confusing aloneness and not busy enough. Another friend, call him Ben, age 73, lives in Ohio. He’s retired, and was divorced three years ago after a 30-year marriage. His M.O. is that he is only content when he’s busy. The rest of the time he’s anxious. Ben is without any noticeable nesting instincts of his own. He is seeking the right female companion with no expectations of exclusivity or permanence. He says he can’t stand being alone, that it’s actually painful for him. I’m unclear whether he’s more afraid of being alone or more undone by lack of busy-ness. I am clear, however, that Ben is at the other end from Adam along the Alone Continuum.
Alone In A Crowd. Now we come to Charlie, age 58, who lives in California. Charlie attends a lot of large social events and pays great attention to his appearance. He can’t stand being wrong or being challenged. So he surrounds himself with people who won’t disagree with him, often hanging out graciously but alone in crowds. If Charlie isn’t happy, no one around him is allowed to be happy either. He says he’s lonely. Charlie shares one end of the alone continuum with Ben.
As for my time on my own, how did I do? I have had a great week, filled with joy and feelings of competence. Still, I’ll be glad for my wife’s return home tomorrow. (I’m already marinating her favorite teriyaki steaks.) Did I miss her terribly? No. Is missing immediately and intensely somehow a requirement for great love and devotion? I don’t think so.
As a result of my experiment, I’m much clearer than ever before that:
- I have the ability to be alone if that is what life hands me. It isn’t what I want. But I won’t be undone by it, and that’s a relief.
- I am no longer embedded in a role (parent, spouse, homeowner, consultant, author, grandparent, researcher, speaker) as my primary way of knowing who I am; somehow in the last 10 years I have developed a sense of myself that endures without roles as a requirement. And this already gives me a leg up, so to speak, on being alone.
- I think it would be good for all of us to experiment with solitude before it knocks on our doors with utterly unforgiving permanence.
- My friends Ben and Charlie would be well served to take Adam out to dinner and inquire in depth about how he manages. And then to try some of what worked for Adam in their own lives.
- Our society often views singlehood after 50 with a dark and suspicious eye. It doesn’t have to be so. We get to choose what alone means for us.
- One of the best things we can do for ourselves after 50 is to take consistent action, renewing and replenishing our social networks. We need to meet and socialize with people of different backgrounds, interests and viewpoints. Building relationships only with people we agree with isn’t renewal. It’s acquisition. Besides, that’s exactly how older people get isolated—they hang out with the same people for years. Then their friends die off and move away while they did little, if anything, to replenish their group of friends.
Which brings me to one my biggest takeaways from this experience: As Linda and I grow older, it’s important that we have our own lives, even though our shared life dominates. This does NOT mean I’m less devoted to my wife. It does mean we can’t depend upon each other exclusively to be OK. We have to depend upon ourselves, too. And upon others. That seems to be a requirement of aging well.
Here’s another important lesson: Loneliness and isolation aren’t completely avoidable, but they don’t have to swamp us. NOW is the time to consider practicing with being alone, at least occasionally. NOW is the time to take all of this seriously, because later may be way too late.
You may want to start, as I did, with Home Alone. Or do you have other strategies in mind?