Societal Solitude: Part I

I feel like the majority of humanity is afraid of the prospect of being alone. Not the actual act of being alone, as in being by oneself and alone with your thoughts and this and that, but how being alone looks to everyone else. It’s widely known that half of humanity experiences extreme amounts of discomfort sitting at a restaurant by themselves—just the idea of it puts a nervous “Oh, I could never do that” in their mouth. The other half of the world’s population might be faking it, but I always hear about these people that just love going out to eat alone. They can’t stop talking about how great and liberating it is and everything else and blah, blah, blah, they’re a whole new person now, congratulations to them. Going out somewhere alone has actually become a thing. I don’t mean going out like running to Walgreens for eye drops or Starbucks for a latte, which are both purposeful outings, but events and activities that you would normally text a friend to join you for. People always feel like they need someone on their arm. You want everyone else to see what a good time you’re having while you’re out, and that’s easier with friends.

I don’t even think the difference is an introvert/extrovert thing, because people in both categories could be uncomfortable in the situation. Extroverts might feel panicked just to sit there alone without another person, or they might be just fine because hey, they can make friends with anybody. Introverts might be self-conscious eating alone because they feel on display and everyone in the restaurant must be staring at them, but on the other hand introverts relish time alone, and might be better off on their own. I consider myself an introvert, but going out in public to do things alone has been a few-step process for me. There’s some kind of poetry in being comfortable with it, and I always wanted to achieve the kind of nirvana those people experience when they go out by themselves. The ones that can’t stop singing solo-adventuring praises from the mountaintops they climb alone. I never understood how it could be a freeing experience, but I wanted to try it.

The first time I consciously went somewhere by myself, I was seventeen and went to see a movie in my hometown’s historic movie theatre downtown. The nine o’clock film was something like a ten-minute drive from my house, beginning just before a summer sunset and ending late enough that I would call my mom while I walked back to the car in the dark, in case I got mugged or kidnapped or the next worse thing after that. I purchased my ticket at the booth, and there was the question: “Just one?” I felt very aware of my aloneness all the way from the booth to the ticket taker to the usher at the theater door, under the impression that everyone I ran into felt sorry for me. I wanted to call out at anyone who made eye contact with me: “I’m here on my own accord and by my own very intentional volition!” The fact that I was sitting there alone was half of what I thought about the whole way through. I saw an indie film, 2009’s Away We Go, which heightened the poetry I was trying to experience just because it was a captivatingly beautiful two hours of film. That’s what independent movies do, you know? The romantics and the poets and the artists are the ones who make them, and in that way they all feel the same. Still, I left feeling like my mission was incomplete. I felt unsettled, but not disappointed. I had gone into this knowing there might be a learning curve.

One of the biggest factors involved in the decision to go out alone is desire. For people like me who don’t treat going out alone casually, there has to be reason enough to make it worth my while. In this case, I really wanted to see Away We Go. Simply that. No one in my family would have had any interest, so I hadn’t even extended an invite. I didn’t have friends at the time, so flying solo was the only way I would get to see this movie. I think I remember feeling pretty cool telling my mother I was going to the theater, taking the car maybe without even asking explicit permission for it, and painting our little town red with my lonely brush wondering what the night would hold. The night ended up holding a standard movie-going experience and a quiet drive home, but anticlimactic was a welcome description for my night out as a newcomer to the world of doing things alone.

Check back Tuesday for part two: the restaurant experience.