There are times when the thing we fear most — more than heights or snakes or even death — is being alone. We think of it more as a concept than as a constantly-fluctuating state of being. “Alone” is something that befalls you, something that follows you around like an ominous storm cloud on the corner of a clear summer sky. It is something you become almost, something that takes you over and makes everything inherently different, inherently less pleasant. We fear it because we’re taught that if we’re alone, it is a symptom of a greater moral failing, something that we could not do or be in our own lives which brought us to the point where no one cares, where no one wants to be around.
We have so much personal value placed in how many people want to be in our lives at any given moment. If someone were to leave you — whether a long-term friend or someone you had planned on marrying — there is a second, more important part of the story which has to do with you not being able to keep them. The implication is always that, if you had your way, they would still be around. The fact that you are now, at this moment, sitting alone in this coffee shop with this book to yourself, means that you were deeply hurt at some point back up the road and have serious regrets about where you’ve arrived. We see someone in the corner of the restaurant having a meal for one, and our first response is always pity. We pity the person they are in this moment at least partially because we pity all the things that must have happened to get them there.
And it’s true that there are going to be many times in life where we end up alone because of outside factors over which we had no control. We are going to find ourselves sitting alone in restaurants, or in our own apartments, fighting back tears because there is no one there to talk to (or, more significantly, the only person we actually want to see won’t come). But this hurt stems from so much more than just the simple act of being in a place by yourself. There are circumstances which must surround one’s aloneness — as with every state of being — to make it more sad. Because being by yourself somewhere can often be a beautiful, wonderful thing. Solitude alone is not enough to be deserving of pity or fear.
Because it’s often in moments of solitude where you realize just how not alone you are. In fact, when you take a moment to be intentionally alone, to absorb everything through the sole filter of your perception, you understand that life is filled with people and things who accompany you. There is a confidence that comes from being alone, a happiness in the more simple pleasures that often go unnoticed when we are distracted by the presence and opinions of others. The crusty bread crackles in your ear when you tear a piece off. The steam from the coffee hits the tip of your nose as you put it to your lips. The small conversations that happen with the man you buy your produce from, or the girl let ahead of you on the subway, all become a kind of warm blanket of confirmation and life. The chatter around you can fill you up with varying degrees of comprehension, tuning in and out when it suits you. You are miles away from alone.
And it is perhaps this that it is most beautiful, most necessary about aloneness. It is realizing that what you’ve always feared, what you’ve always heard such horror stories about, isn’t being alone. It’s not “dying alone,” as if that were even a concrete concept. It’s all of the things that can lead to aloneness, it is the heartbreak whose pain we want to pawn off on the moments we’re sitting by ourselves in front of our stereo listening to the same song over and over again. The pain in loneliness comes from all that surrounds it, not the act itself. And when you spend enough quality time alone, you realize that it is indeed nothing to fear. You realize that you, by yourself, are happy and are confirmed in life and worth by everything around you. And though it will not take the edge off of the painful few moments that lead to us being alone, it is worth reminding ourselves that just because we’re eating alone at a restaurant doesn’t mean we aren’t in wonderful company.