People fight like hell to avoid loneliness. Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, the idea of spending time alone in public made me squirm. I don’t remember the first time I ate alone in a restaurant, but it had to be well into my twenties. Flying solo meant you had no one to hang out with, which meant you had no friends, which meant you were a loser, which meant you were going to die alone. (That’s flawless logic right there.)
As I got older and spent more time in contexts that naturally led to solitude (my college campus, downtown, airports, etc.), the idea of being alone became less intimidating. It’s okay if you eat alone downtown at noon because everyone you know is working, and therefore, it cannot be an indictment of your personality. Of course, context still matters. Most of us don’t mind reading alone at a coffee shop at ten o’clock in the morning, but even the most secure person might feel awkward eating dinner alone on a Saturday night at a romantic restaurant.
Living downtown means I’m alone a lot. We’re all alone a lot, of course, but when my wife and I owned a house, much of that alone time was spent mowing the lawn (yuck), shoveling snow (double yuck), planting flowers (okay, I never actually did that), watching television (yum), painting walls (yuck and a half), cleaning (I’m running out of descriptors), and the list goes on and on (and on and on and on, which is why we no longer own a house). There’s not much to do in a downtown apartment (thank God), so I spend most of my time wandering around the city. I’m sitting alone in Panera as I type these words (and I kid you not, I’m sitting alone in a different Panera as I edit them). Last Wednesday, I walked to Fountain Square by myself and listened to Reggae music. And I’ve noticed other loners out and about. While at happy hour with my wife, a man sat down at the bar by himself to eat, drink, and be merry. I’m not the only lone ranger at Panera (both times).
When we decided to move downtown right across the street from the Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium, I was thrilled about the idea of walking to games by myself, drinking a beer, and wandering around the stadium in search of the best empty seat. I was intimidated about being by myself, but who cares what other people think, right? True story: I tried it for the first time Tuesday. Within five minutes, I ran into two friends I hadn’t seen in forever. When they asked where I was sitting, I casually changed the subject. (I didn’t want to tell them I was alone.) So, after a quick chat, I wandered up to a section behind home plate, grabbed an empty seat, and I kid you not, I was on the jumbotron (huge television in the ballpark) within two minutes of sitting down. By myself! For everyone in the stadium to see!
Text messages and tweets started rolling in from people at the game who knew me. Someone even asked me if I was there alone. I literally could not believe it. What are the odds I picked a seat that was on the jumbotron two minutes later? Well, Great American Ballpark seats 42,319, so I guess the odds are 1 in 42,319.
Here’s what I’ve learned about solitude. It often creates connections that likely wouldn’t form if you were surrounded by friends and family because you would just focus on the people you’re already with. Some guy recently stopped me in the park to show me a picture of his dog. (Okay, I know that sounds suspicious on many levels, but I was walking our dog, he owns the same breed, and people who love dogs treat them like children.) I get to know bartenders when I’m alone. I’m more aware of the people around me when I’m alone (or, at least I feel less guilty since I don’t have to ignore the people I’m with to focus on others). I even chatted with a few strangers at the Reds game after I moved to right field.
Being alone allows us time to think, reflect, pray, mourn, plan, dream, and create. Friends and family are wonderful. I love being surrounded by people. But I also love being alone. And I’m learning to overcome the fear and stigma associated with solitude. Amazing things can happen if you just give yourself space to allow the universe to work its magic.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Bassi Baba