Last week, I had a very telling conversation with the young lady who runs the tea shop by my workplace. She seemed upset, so naturally I asked her what was troubling her. This is the discussion that followed;
Her: Oh, it's just my boyfriend. Our 3 year anniversary is coming up, but we recently had a big fight. I was hoping he'd propose…but now it seems we're just at each others throat all the time. I'm worried that he wants to break up and start seeing someone else.
Me: Well, if you've had big fights before and have always made up, I wouldn't worry too much. But if they have been happening more frequently, maybe you're just not right for each other. Have you had a serious talk about marriage and family yet?
Her: No, not really. I mean, he knows I want to have kids early on, and I'd prefer to either quit my job or work 10 hours a week…but *he* wants to wait til he has his Bachelor's and a full-time job. That's another year and a half away, at least!
Me: Honestly, I think he has a good plan. If he's pursuing a degree, he should finish it so the money he's spent so far isn't wasted. And with the economy the way it is, *I* certainly wouldn't have children without some degree of financial stability. I don't know…it sounds like you're in very different places in the relationship. If you can't reconcile or compromise, it might be better to go your separate ways.
Her: (looking aghast) But then I'd be alone! I don't have another boyfriend lined up…what'll I do with myself?
Me: Umm, you'd be free to do what you want, and so would he.
Her: Well, yeah, but…Who would I *be* with in the meantime? I haven't been single since I was 16! (Laughs uncomfortably) I think I've forgotten *how* to be. I mean, come on…everyone needs someone to come home to, right?
Me: (Smiling) No, not everybody. I have lived alone since I was 18, even in college. I have a few good friends, and my family lives within an hour of here…but some people like to come home to a clean, quiet, orderly house.
Her: (Hands over my tea, laughing uncomfortably again) Oh? Well, I guess you're just a lot more okay with being lonely than I am!
At this point, a group of older guys came in, so I let the conversation drop. But it got me thinking: Why do some people define themselves by their relationships, rather than their own skills, beliefs, and goals? Why does someone who is alone have to necessarily be lonely?
I can see that relationships are important, and can add to ones life in great ways. Family provides a sense of heritage, traditions, and (if you are lucky) a certain type of love and belonging. Friends are the family you get to choose, and provide a different sense of love/belonging, as well as people who can navigate life with you and share your hobbies and interests, and get the same from you in return. Sexual partners are yet another source of love/belonging, and hopefully give as much intimacy as they get from you. But if you don't have one of these, does that make you less of a person?
I'd argue that it does not, unless you define yourself based solely on the relationships in your life. To me, this seems strange. If I was asked to define myself, I'd probably start by talking about my accomplishments and goals…not the fact that I'm the eldest of six, have 3 very good friends, and have always been single. True, these are parts of my life, but they are not who *I* am.
As for being lonely, I honestly can say I've never been, or at least cannot consciously remember a time that I was. My recollections of time spent alone are of peaceful contemplation, study, and meditative happiness. Whether it was climbing a tree with my sketch pad to get an accurate rendering of a bird's nest, sitting on the rocky peninsula of the lake and just watching the local wildlife, or spending the day hiking and climbing in the mountains near my home…my teenage life was one of quiet reflection and wondrous discovery. Oh, how much you can learn just by listening and watching!
But I digress. Of course, I had friends as well. We played Magic in the hallways, had sleepovers where we watched anime, played videogames, and made our own pizzas. Times when we'd climb trees, camp in the backyard, play manhunt and tag football, or just walk to the movies. And I remember these times just as fondly as my aforementioned memories. But was I ever "lonely" when my friends were unavailable? No, I'd say not.
Which leads to a question I've not yet found an answer for: What causes some people to feel loneliness in a situation where another does not? Why does an empty house provide a much needed sanctuary for some, but creates a sense of despair in others? Why can one person feel contentment while taking a solitary walk through their neighborhood at night, where another would jump at every shadow and be desirous of companionship?
Is it purely one's innate personality, with Person A craving attention and Person B declining it? Is it a case of nurture, where babies that were mollycoddled are more needy, even later in life? Or is it purely nature, with one's genetics determining just how much you require others for your personal happiness?
I'm honestly unsure. I wish I had a real answer to present, but alas…I do not. Perhaps you, dear reader, have your own ideas?