One of my favorite television shows, Sex and the City, featured an episode where the characters discussed their secret single behaviors, such as eating saltines with jelly while reading fashion magazines, for example. While I’m not much for fashion magazines in general (or saltines, for that matter), in light of the last couple of posts discussing relationships, I do want to take some time to focus on the benefits of being single and on the value of solitude. This relates to a question posed in one of my earlier posts, “What legitimizes your life?”
Is a Friday evening spent perusing fashion magazines inherently less valuable than a Friday evening spent at a club with friends? Or in the arms of a lover or a spouse? For a lot of people, the presence of others is legitimizing. “How do I know I had fun on Friday night? Well, I have the stories of my friends to prove it. We were all there (wherever there is) and we all shared an experience.” Now, I’m not denying the value of shared experience, but there seems to be an overall misconception about the value of solitude. Solitude has gotten a bad rap: we’ve all heard the stories in the news where some unsavory character or another is described as a “loner.”
Being alone is scary for a lot of people. Some of this has to do with social attitudes toward being alone, which feed the fear that alone-ness means being unwanted or unloved, or indicates some fatal character flaw or, worse still, some level of mental illness. Achieving a basic level of comfort with alone-ness may well require examining or deactivating these fears. Just as there’s a strong mythology around the process of coupling, there’s an equally strong mythology around being alone.
When we’re alone, we only have ourselves for company. And when we are alone, we have a greater opportunity to see ourselves more clearly, particularly if we don’t engage in distractions like television or the internet. There’s always the chance we might not like what we see. Regardless, it’s an important opportunity to get comfortable with the different aspects of ourselves, to actually make friends with ourselves.
Self-study or self-knowledge, called svadhyaya, is an important aspect of any yoga practice. Svadhyaya is really about having a relationship with yourself. Understanding your likes and dislikes, also known as attachments or aversions (depending on the degree of emotional response involved). Asking important and sometimes difficult questions: “What do I not want to give up, and why? What do I avoid at all costs, and why? And, do my attachments and aversions serve me?” Part of svadhyaya is being curious and non-judgmental toward yourself, even going so far as to make peace with parts of yourself that you may not like.
Having a solid relationship with yourself is a foundation for building satisfying relationships with others (romantic or otherwise). Knowing what your own preferences are helps make it easier to communicate with others about what your needs are in a relationship, which is vital to establishing successful relationships. Being without a significant other is an opportunity: to discover who you are, what you prefer, and to be, in a word, selfish. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Relationships involve compromise; with a foundation of self-knowledge, it’s possible to know which compromises can be made generously and gracefully, and which others come at the cost of fulfillment, peace, or well-being.
So, rather than looking at those times without a relationship as periods of limbo, where we wait for our “real” life to start, we can begin a process of legitimizing them and valuing them. We may even choose to be alone for certain periods of our lives, recognizing the benefits that solitude can provide, especially for scholarly pursuits, creative endeavors, or periods of healing and emotional growth. If we approach alone-ness as a state that has value, we truly have the potential to make it an opportunity for growth and development. And, to make it an opportunity to do whatever it is we love to do: to create our own “party for one.”
Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, by Anneli Rufus
Solitude: A Return to the Self, by Anthony Storr
A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf (full text version). Written in 1929. Focuses on the topic of women and writing.