“If you could be alone or with someone, which would you choose?” It’s me and three of my guy friends from high school, standing outside their row house in downtown Baltimore, and we’re talking about New Year’s resolutions while they finish cigarettes. My friend waits for my answer and I give one in circles.
“I guess I’d rather be with someone, but only if it’s someone who I want to be with and who wants to be with me. If not, I’d rather be alone, just like I’ve been choosing, because I don’t feel unhappy alone, but I could be very unhappy being with somebody just for the sake of having someone.”
It’s funny, I always think of my guy friends as wanting to be single, as associating a girlfriend with a loss of space or autonomy – a loss of something – but we all seem to agree that it would be nice to have someone who you really care about.
They drop their cigarettes and smudge them into the sidewalk. It’s really cold, and my friend and I start walking down the street toward the bars with the others just behind us. He hugs his arm tight around my back, mine wedged under his, him yelling about body warmth, me proclaiming that it’s time that I go back to California, and it crosses my mind as couples pass us that we probably look like one too.
I don’t like this.
I feel myself itching to slide my arm out from under his, to be able to walk down the street untethered to anything or anyone.
We get to one of the bars along the strip of them. I don’t drink anymore, so I’m sober. I do a lap but I don’t know what I’m really searching for. Whatever it is, I don’t think it will be found here. People seem to be clinging to each other, grins sloppy and eyes a vacant kind of hollow while their hands grasp for backs and waists and fingers. This feels like desperation and need. This feels like panic at being alone. This doesn’t feel like happiness.
It’s when I leave my friends and the bar a few minutes later and walk the ten or so blocks to my car by myself that I feel it for the first time, the thing I’ve been searching for. I pass through groups of people on the sidewalk, a guy bent over and puking into the street, girls in short dresses and holding their heels, their bare feet padding across the frozen concrete as cops watch on from every corner. I get past everything that’s moving, and that’s when it happens. It comes like a big exhale. I turn a corner and walk into an empty alley strung up with Christmas lights that glow neon from roof to roof and am met with an unmatched feeling of vastness, of emptiness.
There’s a quiet air of recklessness that comes with freedom. There’s the sense that whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, is entirely up to you, that you could be on the very edge of risk or danger at any moment, that you’re the only one there to fend for you, to protect you. In spite of that – or perhaps, strangely, because of it – it feels safe. Something about it is untouched and lovely. If there is magic in the world, I think it comes in the moments exactly like this one, the ones of absolute freedom, because these are our moments of utter and irrefutable authenticity, where we feel calm and expansive and light in comparison to the way we usually walk around with the quiet thrum of our fears lodged in our bones.
And I think that when we go to make our resolutions for a new year, whether we realize the connection or not, we often make them out of our desire for freedom. Maybe we have a need that has been going unmet that we are acutely aware of; maybe we’re operating within a survival system that we’ve long outgrown. We categorize our desired changes in different ways, by the different facets of our lives, but what we’re all really searching for within those desired changes is that unparalleled feeling that comes with those moments of true and rare freedom.
Because the thing about freedom is that it is when we are at our most alive. Even more than that, it is when we are at our most aware of being alive.
I recently read that any living thing that isn’t growing or evolving can only be moving towards death and decay. It’s bleak, if you think of it as such. Or perhaps it’s invigorating, or at the very least informing: if there is any area of your life in which your needs are not being met or in which you’ve exhausted all that there is to learn and become – if you’re staying in a toxic relationship, if you’re working an unfulfilling job, if you’re regretting never having moved away from home – you have crossed over into the space where you are dying. We may not go around saying, “I’m in the worst rut of my life. I’m miserable, and it’s because I’ve stopped moving towards life and have started moving towards death” – but that’s the real truth.
At the other end of that feeling of moving towards death is freedom: the most alive we can be. And that is why, when we come at a new year with our ruts and our shortcomings and our ideals for change, it’s not so much that we’re simply looking to lose 15 pounds, to meet the love of our life or to land our dream job. To gain those things without earning them would likely be unfulfilling; to acquire them without there being some other substantiated value to them would probably render them meaningless.
What we’re looking for is freedom.
So what I most hope for you in the coming year is that you find freedom, true freedom. I hope you find it when you are alone, and I hope you find it with someone who really, really cares about you. I hope you find it in your job, and I hope you find it within your family. I hope it follows you and outweighs your fears, and I hope you remember to seek it when you’re feeling lost.
And when you do find it, when you truly and really find it in your next year ahead, I hope you stay in that moment as much as you can, and maybe look up at the vastness and the emptiness above and around you and think to yourself about the loveliness of this small moment in time and how wonderful it is that you are alive – really, truly alive – in the year 2016.