The hyper social, hyper connected, and hyper public lives we live today – in large part thanks to the unprecedented advances in information and communication technologies – have done things to our sense of presence and lack there of, and our needs. The rapid change in how we function on a day-to-day basis (thanks to those technologies and the omnipresence of the internet in our lives) have changed our sociality and how we perceive aloneness. There are probably a thousand or more angles to approach aloneness from, but I’ve been giving a few of them a lot of thought in the past couple of years. Here are my three takes on aloneness.
On being alone together
During my MA course in the University of Amsterdam, I came a cross a lot of literature that dealt with the relationship between humans and technologies that can be called nothing short of seductive because of the way they penetrate our consciousness and emotions. We need them there. The smartphones we carry with us every day are like a phantom limb nowadays – our work lives depend on it (I know I am surely guilty of that), and we have put a lot of stakes of our personal lives on them as well. I am not going to go very deep into how Facebook and other applications we click open every day give us a legitimate emotional reward and hence become addictive. But the next time you’re sitting in a cafe, put down your phone and observe what’s going on around you. How many couples or groups of people do you see around you that are submerged in their newsfeed instead of being submerged in what their companion has to say? They are alone together. It’s scary, right? I have no right to take the stance of a cyber-skeptic as I clearly delve in those technological dalliances plenty myself, but it never hurts to be aware of one’s own sins.
I came across the pair of words ‘alone together’ in the book by Sherry Turkle. Here’s the NYT review of it that should give a decent overview, and although it was published years ago, I think it’s still painfully relevant, and also a good read. I will grossly over-simplify some of the ideas, but one of the most resonating ones for me is how the hyper-connectivity actually makes us feel and be more alone. We become more and more fine with an online chat instead of being curled up on someone’s sofa. Ten likes and reactions under a photo (that is often a beautified depiction of reality, but that’s a totally different story) becomes as rewarding as a friend saying – in real life – that the photo is particularly nice. And then what? Is it eventually easier for us to resort to mediated conversations? Do we lose our people skills? And do we ever come crashing down from the [false?] sense of connection provided by those digital rewards? I think we do. And we end up feeling more alone. The positive side is that humans seem to be the most adapting species on planet Earth, so once we spin out of the cycle and land on our feet, we can start rebuilding our analogue connections.
But as a disclaimer – I genuinely do believe that technology can also enhance and enable beautiful connections, help to maintain them, but it should always be approached with caution. A chat never substitutes being in the same time and space with someone. If you’re not as socially capable in the analogue world, tech might help you get going, and that’s wonderful. But as far as a lot of really smart people seem to have concluded over and over again – we tend to be social creatures and having real people around to talk to (or be quiet with, whichever you prefer) is usually a good thing. And that’s a good place to move onto the next take on aloneness and set technology aside for a moment.
On being together *that* way
I wasn’t planning on going full on biology, but it does seem that the only way to keep human life going on this planet (unless we destroy it with our stupidity before) is to erm… make babies. The most basic way for that is to find someone you don’t hate very much, and make babies with them. (I just have to say that I f*cking love science, because science has made it possible for so many more combinations of people to create families, not just “one man, one woman” and even fertility problems have a lot higher being-solved-rate than ever before. How cool is that!) Society also seems to think that we function the best in pairs. Makes sense, right? And even though science and life have long rendered the traditional notion of a family obsolete, there still seems to be some sort of a general opinion still that we should all couple up and procreate. All the more so from a female perspective.
Even though I believe I have surrounded myself with forward-thinking and liberal people, and the parts of the world that I have had the privilege to live in, can subscribe to all sorts of alternative arrangements in life, but even in those conditions I have felt an indisputable condemnation for nearing thirty and not having made any babies. Most of the time it’s discreet enough to go unnoticed for bystanders. But when it happens to you thirty times, you start to notice the pattern. There are so many ways this topic is a toxic can of worms, but being forced into finding my peace with it more than once, I will address it. I’m not even going to go much deeper into how fundamentally wrong it is for anyone but the person themselves to have an opinion about someone’s choices in personal life, but those who self-assign themselves the right to say anything about someone not having children yet – have they considered the possibility that they might be infertile and such topics can be painful on the level that doesn’t even begin to fit into words? Yeah, there’s that.
And then there’s when a woman has made the decision to focus on fulfilling whatever dreams and pursuits they have in life, sans children. Sometimes that’s just how life plays the cards at some stage of the life. You don’t necessarily have to make a conscious decision to not make a family, life just happens elsewhere. That’s how it’s been for me for the past couple of years. I’ve lived a crazy work life and I have loved it in most part. Children haven’t fit into the picture. I also haven’t been in a longer committed relationship since I moved back to Estonia. And I’m fine with it. But it seems that some parts of the society have trouble understanding, accepting, and believing that. Why does it bother people when a (young woman) is alone? It doesn’t mean that I am incapable of loving or caring for someone else, or that I don’t want children at all at some point. Or that I don’t want to be with someone. I can’t see why not, but the stars really have to align right for that. And that’s a good point to move on to the third part of the aloneness ramblings – the metaphorical aloneness.
On being alone
For me, being alone is a necessity. I need to be alone every now and then to reflect on things, and to just be. I also really enjoy travelling alone (although I usually meet some friends at my destinations), because you can really get up to whatever the f*ck you want, no-one to judge, no-one to tell you what to do. I genuinely believe that I have won a jackpot at life when it comes to my friends. Regardless of physical time and space, I am never lonely (aloneness and loneliness are often, erroneously, thought of as synonyms) thanks to them.
I haven’t always been so comfortable with aloneness. I remember when I moved to London to study and during the first year, I went through some pretty epic bursts of home sickness. Over time, it got easier and it got good. I learnt to be alone. When you do something as drastic as move to a new country, there’s not that many alternatives anyway. If you don’t learn to be alone, there’s always the option to call it quits, but that was never really an option for me personally. I learnt that it’s fine to sometimes feel home sick and miss your friends and family. But that’s not what should define my daily life. The way for me was to separate my personal wellbeing and self worth from (the presence of) others. Having fantastic people around is great. But that should not be the base of contentment, but an extra. An extra that I would most of the time be very happy to enjoy. I would have probably had an awful time living abroad if I never learnt to enjoy being alone. I would have burned out and succumbed to some pretty dark stuff.
The ‘extra’ theory also applies to erm… romantic companions. I don’t consider it a life’s essential to be in a relationship. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a bunch of supremely interesting, intelligent, and beautiful people that I can call my friends. I feel loved and appreciated by them. They give me an intellectual high and they can also be silly as hell. I feel extremely privileged in that respect. I have also been super lucky with colleagues that I have been able to learn from and grow with. So, I guess I have been spoiled. I am surrounded by amazing people and I self sustain, both economically and intellectually speaking. But this, again, does not mean I don’t want someone next to me. Why not, but there’s something really important. One thing I am never giving up is my independence, my freedom.
Whatever relationships (friendships, romantic encounters, whatever else) I develop with people, it can never be based on dependence. They have to complement and compliment. Both people have to be whole, otherwise it can get unhealthy and imbalanced quite fast. For me, the one of the prerequisites for wholeness is the ability to be alone.
On a final note, I think the ability to be alone is also something that has to be worked on constantly so that the skills don’t get rusty. It’s only natural that there are setbacks and adverse situations in life and sometimes they undo all the alone-zen you’ve managed to cultivate over the years. Negative feelings are an easy way to loneliness (the bad and suffocating version of alone). Sometimes a little help is needed, but the trick to overcoming negative feelings is also something that is pretty alone, if you ask me. It’s in our heads, and most of the time there’s no-one else there but us. So, to overcome the ‘bad alone’, we need to be alone and process things. No-one else can do it for us. No-one else can take the hurt away than us.
There is an indescribably beautiful stillness in aloneness – almost meditative.
And on a final-final note, it must be also said that regardless of how hard we try, sometimes we can’t overcome the hurt, the loneliness, the anxiety that comes along with it. It can swallow a person. That doesn’t mean they’re weak or they’ve given up or that they’re somehow not good. No-one should ever be alone with depression, and I hope that one day we can get over that societal stigma that mental health problems have. Someone who is suffering from depression won’t get much help from what I have just written. They won’t be able to process things themselves, and get over it or just cheer up. There is a very big difference between existential theoretical rambling philosophising and being stuck in the quicksand of our own mind. The line can be very thin, and one can only hope that we can cultivate compassion to notice more, care more, judge less, be more for the people who need it.
Wow, I can really ramble a lot.