As I drove home from work one evening this week, I got thinking about the variety of the experiences you can have being alone. I have a great deal of friends near and far, but I’ve spent a lot of time in my own company over the years–sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance.
For example, as an introvert, I spend a great deal of time in my own company and love times of peace and solitude. I work a job that is heavy on customer service, so at the end of the day, all I want is to curl up in my room and read my book. I’ve recently taken up hiking and, when I have the trail to myself, the world gets all quiet in a way that fills up my spirit. Being alone is restful–a haven away from the loudness of life.
But being alone isn’t always bliss.
I have learned so well what it is to be lonely. When I think of loneliness, I think of the single dorm room where I finished out my senior year of college. I remember throwing myself into my classwork, painting, Netflix, anything–ANYTHING to keep my mind off how alone and uncertain I felt. My loneliness was always with me, a constant gnawing in my chest. Even when I was with people whom I called friends, I still felt unseen, unnoticed. I had no idea what the future had in store and no sense of where I should begin my adult life. All I knew was that, if I could make it to graduation, if I could stick out the loneliness that nearly every day threatened to consume me, I would be okay. So I plunged into stories–into imaginary lands with characters whose struggles differed from mine, where people couldn’t hurt me with their indifference.
WHEW. Let’s all take a breather after that drama-filled paragraph.
I’ve learned that there is a third kind of aloneness. (Is that even a word?) This last experience is unique–a contradicting blend of solitude and loneliness. It is the experience of being on your own in a country where you do not speak the language and no one knows your name. I experienced this during a month-long solo trip across Europe. It’s been over a year and, only now, am I finding the right words to define what it was like.
It’s both terrifying and empowering, painful and liberating.
When you slip silently through ancient cobbled streets, anonymous and unnoticed, ears saturated by conversations you do not understand, you are lost. Alone in the world, you are left with nothing but your own person. You’re tempted to turn inward, to despair at the pain of being alone, but the world is so big and there is so much you long to see. So you reach out and embrace your aloneness. You give yourself the permission to feel, file away the thought that this would be so much more fun with someone to share it with, and explore those cobbled streets anyway.
The beauty of this third experience of being alone is that, by some miracle, I discovered that I was stronger than I knew, braver than I realized, and capable of so much more than I ever dreamed.
Being alone has taught me so much.
I have learned the inner workings of my own person.
I have learned to listen to my body, my mind, my spirit, and take care of myself.
I have learned to embrace what is not easy.
I have learned that escapism is not a healthy coping mechanism, but the stories that have sustained me have taught me what it is to empathize with others.
I have learned to not let fear or lack of companionship keep me from pursuing my dreams.
I have learned that, at the end of the day, I genuinely like myself.
These lessons are a gift.