How Not to Be Alone

21 Aug

Once the words are out there, they have a life of their own. Once someone says some stupid racist comment on camera, no one will ever forget it. Once a wayward tweet – penis or sans penis – is sent, it will always be floating around in the Interwebo’sphere™, haunting the wayward tweeter for all time. Once you tell someone you love them, you can never unsay it, no matter how drunk you may have been when you said it or how sober you were when you realized your own drunken stupidity.

I wrote last year about rules for writing. One of the rules was “don’t tell anyone your ideas before you’ve written them.” My theory is that keeping the idea hidden within you until the thing is written gives you strong motivation to actually write it. If you start blabbing your ideas all over the place, you’ve basically told the story and have less motivation to do the hard work of writing, revising, revising some more, hating it, hating yourself, deciding to go to law school, rereading it and sort of liking it, revising some more, putting it in a drawer for a few months, revising some more, and then finishing it and having no one read it.

The main difference between telling your friend the story and actually writing it is that one is a public act and one is private. One is done in the company of others, the other is performed alone.

Writing is a solitary act, there is no getting around this. You can write in a café or a bar but you are still writing alone. Even when I’m not writing I’m still writing: I find myself lost in daydreams, staring off into space when I am in the middle of a conversation, ignoring people not because they are – necessarily – uninteresting, but because my mind has been caught up in an idea.

Hemingway, in his Nobel speech, said:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

That’s all very bleak and writerly, but also rife with self-pity – something Hemingway possessed quite a bit of, though hid behind the persona of Great White Drunken Hunter Man.

Admittedly, writers spend an inordinate amount of time inside their own heads, but that does not make one lonely. It makes one alone. Being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Unfortunately, many of us have lost the art of being alone, equating that state with the sense of emptiness that loneliness can bring. 

Being alone is such a fearful proposition because “alone” has been given a bum rap over the years. Loners are the ones who shoot up shopping malls. They die in their apartments – alone – and no one finds them until the smell of their rotting – and very alone – flesh wafts merrily down the hall. Remember that bookish boy in high school who’d eat his PB&J and read about spaceships and orcs alone at the table in the corner? No one wanted to be him or his friend. And of course there is “dying alone.” As in, “no one wants to die alone.” Or, “well, in the end, we all die alone.” Death is sad enough, must we shit on it anymore?

The stigma of aloneness is the antithesis of the Hollywoody cliché of pairing off. How many of you who are single are jealous of your friends who are not? And how many of you coupled-up people feel sorry for the singlehood some of your friends have seemingly become betrothed to?

Of course I am not saying that we should all be alone or not get married or that social interactions are somehow stupid. But there is a pervasive all-or-nothingness to the Alone vs. With Others conflict that has been built into society. Personally, I think most people desire to be with another person, to love and be loved back, to share their hopes and fears with someone else and to have that person share back. To experience life with another. And so on. But just because we want to be with someone else does not mean that we cannot also at times be alone with our own selves, with our own hopes and fears.

I think of being alone in the same way as I do of eating or sleeping. It is a necessary function that we humans need to survive. It can be rewarding or tedious, but it is necessary.


At some point in the past few weeks I posted something on Facebook that I realized too late was rather stupid. But the words were out there, and they had a life of their own. What I posted was just a thought, but one which I should never have shared with a bunch of “friends.” If this were ten years ago I may have written it down in my diary (or in my journal, being I am a boy), or even used the thought as a jumping off point for a short story. But I just had to tell the world, scream it from the treetops of the Intertubeo’verse™.

There have been plenty of articles written on how “Facebook makes us sad/lonely/depressed/envious/hateful/spiteful/angry.” Most see the problem being that we compare our own lives with the lives of others. “Oh, look, Cathy is married and has a couple of kids and I’m almost 40 and single and WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!?!?!” “Oh, John and Tyler went to Europe for six months. That’s because they’ve got money. I hate them. I want to go to Europe. I HATE MY LIFE!!!” “Wait, those four friends of mine just checked into my favorite restaurant, and I WASN’T INVITED?!?! WHERE’S THE FUCKING DISLIKE BUTTON?!?!”

Many conclude from the negative feelings that Facebook engenders that Facebook – and other social media – is a bad substitute for our social lives. The idea being that our “real” relationships, like actually talking with someone in person, is a well-balanced diet that keeps us mentally fit. Facebook, on the other hand, is a dozen glazed Krispy Kremes. It’s a tasty but highly unhealthy treat that is okay in moderation but bad as a staple.

But the idea that Facebook is a substitute for real relationships is misguided. Rather, I see social media as a substitute for being alone.

We are so afraid of being alone with our own thoughts that we utilize Facebook to give us just the right amount of social stimulation needed to pretend that we are not actually at that very moment alone in a room with no one else.

The irony, of course, being that “alone” is good and “lonely” is not so good, and of course Facebook emphasizes the latter by eliminating the former. More, it emphasizes the worst kind of loneliness – the loneliness within a crowd, but it’s not even a real crowd, it’s a Facebook crowd.

So not only are we not getting our “me time,” we are sacrificing it for the empty calories of fake relationships with people we only know via cyberspace. It’s as if we are afraid of potential nightmares so we somehow bypass our REM cycles.

The difference between being alone and being lonely is that loneliness is more of a reflection about what we don’t have – other people and other people’s stuff, while being alone is a celebration of what we do have – ourselves.

Of course it’s not just Facebook. Pick whatever social media you like, or chat rooms, or the comment sections, they all seem to be substitutes for real communication. I see them more as replacements for communicating with ourselves. We are losing the art of introspection. We read less and tweet more. We spend more time commenting on movie reviews than actually watching movies. We toss that wayward thought onto Facebook and let it linger there instead of having it mature in our own minds.

Now, I know I sound like a grumpy old man who doesn’t know how to use these newfangled Typing Boxes (Now With Porn!). I’ve gone off on the Pretentious Luddite Writer in the past, and would prefer not to be thought of  as that particular brand of asshole. But I don’t subscribe to this type of all-or-nothing philosophy when it comes to social media. I see all of these outlets as important in their own ways. Facebook does keep me in contact with people I may no longer hang out with, Twitter is great for breaking news, and Reddit can maybe finally get to the bottom of the Kennedy assassination. I don’t hate social media, but neither do I wish to be connected to it so much that I lose the more important connections in my life.

I probably use Facebook more than I should. I like it. It is entertaining. I post this blog on it weekly and sometimes someone will repost it (Thanks Mom!) and that is nice. Do I get envious of those people who are not me who are at a ball game, or all those good friends out to dinner without me, or some people I used to be much closer with but who I haven’t seen in years, and I have no idea why? Do I sometimes feel rotten because someone else gets into a relationship or gets married or has children, and I do not? Yes, of course. We can all be petty people at times, and we should accept that. We’re only human.

But in all these cases I am comparing myself to others, to their successes. He is better than me. She is happier than I am. That is not how we are supposed to measure our own worth. The only person I can compare myself with is the ideal version of Me. And I can only do that when I am alone with him.


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