Alone but not lonely

This is an odd attempt at a personal essay from last fall that didn’t quite gel. A lot has changed for me since then, and this reads to me like it was written years, not months ago. But inspired by Alfred Soto’s terrific piece about what it means to live alone, I figured I’d salvage what I’d abandoned.

This summer I was often alone but I was not often lonely. I would write in the morning and bike later that afternoon to one lake or another with some book or another. Not a bad life.

This summer I was often alone but I was not often by myself. I worked in coffee shops, where prolonged conversation might be rare but the regular bustle simulated companionship, and I read on lakeside benches, welcoming the distraction of people strolling continuously past me.

Being alone is hardly a condition of absolute isolation, but simply an awareness that you walk into a situation unaccompanied and remain a solitary presence even when you interact with others.

I am 46 years old and I form no integral strand of any social web. I never married and I have no children—not by choice, except in the sense that everything in our lives results from the accrual of small choices. I have no family in Minnesota: My parents are both dead, and my only brother lives in New Jersey.

I do have friends, and good ones too. I have dates and I have lovers. I have acquaintances I’m excited to bump into, and I probably socialize more regularly and more widely than most people my age.

And yet, what a gregarious person would call a tolerance for being alone I feel as a hunger. And so my loneliness, when it sets in—and eventually it does—is a kind of spiritual indigestion, a hangover from whenever I overindulge my ravenous appetite for solitude.

Loneliness isn’t depression, or anxiety, though all three nurture each other. (I know firsthand, trust me.) Depression, anxiety—these are deeply tangled emotional responses, significantly out of scale to whatever slight stimulus aggravates them. Loneliness, at least when it first sprouts, feels temperamentally proportionate, and (like boredom, say) potentially fixable, a mere need for human connection that I refuse to seek out, like shivering stubbornly on the couch instead of grabbing a blanket.

But loneliness persists, metastasizes into alienation, until no amount of human interaction lessens that sense of being alone. When you don’t interact regularly with your closest friends or family you lose the habit of easy intimacy. And when you’re already lonely, the social shorthand of shared memories or in-jokes or small talk that you fall back can feel especially hollow.

The lonelier I am, the more likely I am to idealize possible social interactions, to develop unrealistic expectations of friendship itself, and the less likely my contact with others will measure up to my fantasies. Or the opposite occurs: My imagination falters and I can’t envision future social situations that will decrease my loneliness.

As I write this, I’m constantly resisting the urge to offer the sort of explanations that lonely people feel implicitly demanded of them. (Even if few people really wonder “Why did you come alone?” the lonely can imagine hints of that question in your subtext or tone.) And I’m already dreading the possible responses—pity or, worse still, well-meaning advice. I don’t want a roommate or a pet or a church, really I don’t.

Like television and even the book before it, “the internet” is now fingered as the culprit for our collective loneliness. And yes, when I’m already lonely, social media can isolate me further—an

ill-considered self-pitying Facebook post elicits comments I don’t want to read from people I don’t want to hear from. An online conversation between friends about a topic I find stupid drives me deeper into myself. And though social media can connect me to friends hundreds of miles away, it can keep me from hanging out with friends just a few blocks away.

But the perpetual connectedness of online life can also be my last defense against loneliness. In September, I drove up to Duluth for two days. (Alone, yes.) I gorged on bison pastrami and lost myself on wooded hikes and pestered locals for insights about their city. But at moments loneliness tapped me on the shoulder, reminding me that to be alone is to have no companion to confirm my experience. If no one shares my meal, or sees the same sunset, or gives me reason to express what I think, how do I hang on to that experience? Our relationships function as an external hard drive for our memories, and one reason breakups hurt is because we lose access to shared swathes of our past.

So I’d pull out my phone, and tap a few words into Facebook or Twitter, sometimes with a photo attached, and take the opportunity to narrate my life. This is what writing has always been for me: a way to communicate while remaining alone, to risk the vulnerability of exposing my thoughts to others from a position of comfortable solitude. And in those moments, I was again alone but not lonely.

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  • Brooke  On May 31, 2017 at 5:10 am

    Well-written and very perceptive. Alone time recharges my batteries and helps me handle Life.

  • vincent  On October 23, 2017 at 10:11 pm

    Really glad I stumbled onto this post tonight, Keith. I’ve admired your writing often, but since this is a subject I know much more about (than I know about music), you’re writing here is all the more compelling.


  • By The duties of friendship | Humanizing The Vacuum on June 3, 2017 at 10:32 am

    […] week I wrote at length at my reveling in aloneness (Keith Harris wrote a terrific heterosexual response). But aloneness is not to be confused for friendless. As a gay single man in a constant state of […]

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