Saturday, June 16, 2012

Being Alone vs. Being Lonely

Been awhile since I broached this topic on this blog (maybe never?), but it's been on my mind lately. I got to a point a month or two ago where I realized that it was probably better for all concerned if I just remained single. 

I'm not going to get into my whole mercifully short dating career, but it was sufficient to move the activity lower on the priority list. Blame it on whatever you want--poor relationship skills on my part, bad behavior on someone else's, whatever it is--I just don't date well. Which is just as well, it turns out, because I prefer to spend most of my time alone. My hobbies are of a singular nature: reading and writing primarily, but even those activities where another person could be involved (say, vacations, dining, or hiking), I rather prefer the quietude of my own thoughts.

There are downsides to this happy-by-myself business. I can get prickly about criticisms of a personal nature--comments about my behavior as opposed to my work, where I expect criticism--I'm not used to them because I live alone, and have for the past 9 years. My housekeeping skills, while sufficient, are not employed as often as they probably should or would be if I had company or someone living with me on a regular basis. But again, I'm not looking for that, so what's the big deal?

That's more or less what it's like being alone most of the time. I pursue my own interests and activities, answering to few, enjoying life as I see fit. I hear concerned comments occasionally like, "Oh, it's so sad, you should have someone in your life." To which I respond, "Why? I'm happy." The other person's pity is as baffling to me as my response is to them.

Being lonely is something else. It doesn't happen to the single traveler very often, especially if he's comfortable in his own skin and circumstances, but it does happen.

Usually loneliness occurs on those rare moments when I feel like being social and there's no one around who's available to hang out. That, or a friend is doing something that I might find enjoyable but doesn't invite me. In that latter circumstance, I suppose I have only myself to blame because people assume that "Bart wants to be left alone," which 9 times out of 10, is perfectly correct. But my interests are pretty well known (read my blog, check out my cubicle or Facebook postings, and the space exploration theme is all but screaming at you). So if I don't get invited, I tend to feel left out. Then I go through this interminable self-reflection exercise where I castigate myself for not being more social. The exercise usually ends when I force myself leave the apartment and go out among people only to realize that I don't abide crowds well.

I'm aware of my crusty, introverted habits off duty, which is why I put in some effort to be a friend at work so people will notice if I don't show up the next day. I'd hate to end up one of those people who says nothing to anyone and is only found dead in his apartment because the neighbors complain about the smell ("I didn't know he was sick. He was so quiet, he never said anything.").

But really, as long as I have a few people who check in to see if I'm okay occasionally, I'm good with that. There are worse ways to live one's life. One of them would be to force myself out of the apartment every night just to meet people. I would exhaust myself in the effort and probably resent others for making the effort. I like people, just in moderate doses, like having a few friends I know very well or a wide range of acquaintances I can communicate on some light level. Yet  I know I'll be able to relax at the end of the day because I can return home and sort out my thoughts in the quiet of the Bartcave.

I disagree with Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote that "Hell is other people." On those moments when I need people around, I really need them. Which is why, again, it makes sense to be a good friend so I'm not someone who shows up only when I need something. Still, my behavior vexes some people.

Introversion or individual self-sufficiency can be seen as standoffish, snobby, cold, or cruel. It's not meant to be, any more than sociability or extroversion is meant to be pushy. It's just a different state of mind. I'm baffled that introverts pair off at all, but it happens, obviously. For me, though, that's not seen as a happy option.

So, yes: at the tender age of 42, I've made a happy peace with being a good friend to those who would have me. A friend who lives alone.

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