A few days ago, Nancy Zimmerman (a Twitter pal) wrote a thought-provoking post titled “Art of Contentment: on being Single on Valentine’s Day“.
Part of what Nancy said deeply affected me:
And last, I have had enough life experience and enough married friends close to me that I get this primary truth: we are all fundamentally alone. Some people go through their alone-ness with a partner. Some of us go through our alone-ness with partner after partner. Some of us simply go through our alone-ness alone.
After reading the post, Nancy and I had a bit of an exchange on Twitter:
The idea that “we all die alone” struck a chord too. Imagine my surprise when the same quote came up again, this time on the TV show House.
That was probably a reference to a phrase widely credited (but I can’t find where the original may have been said) to Orson Welles:
We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.
So, rather than restrict myself to less-than-140-character snippets, I thought I’d expand on my thoughts a bit more here.
As I said to Nancy, I just don’t agree with this. At least, I can’t agree with the generalization. Which is to say that while I’m sure there are many people who are alone, and many people who are perfectly fine with that, there are also people who are NOT alone. In fact, it seems to me many people’s basic struggle through life is to be not alone.
“We die alone.” It’s the generalizations that aren’t.
Certainly, some people die alone. My grandmother died last year, after many years of living with an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s Disease. As she grew older, she outlived many friends and relatives. Due to her affliction, however, it didn’t much matter. The disease had taken her to a place where she was truly alone, unaware of many of the things around here, lost to whatever world her memories afforded her. She had family that cared for her, of course, who visited her, and who tried to provide comfort, but in the end and mostly due to the disease, she died alone.
On the other hand, some people don’t die alone. My mother also passed last year. She suffered for years from various aliments largely driven by an ovarian cancer that couldn’t be contained. The morning she died, she was not alone — she died in the arms of my father, and I’m certain that there was immense comfort in dealing with this last experience together. Similarly, after my mother died, my father was not alone. He was surrounded by family who care very much.
When Gwen and I moved to the West Coast we left behind friends and family. At times it can feel lonely, certainly. But we have each other. And now our own kids. And local friends. And although separated by distance, we still have our family. We might not see them as often as everyone would like, we know they’re there and think of us once and a while.
Being “alone” has nothing to due with independence or individualism. You can be your own person, do your own thing without being alone.
Perhaps the question of being “alone” has to do with what you mean by being alone. Consider all the people around you. There are the people you interact with on a daily basis. There are the people you interact with online. There are the people you see out and about in your community. There are your friends. Your close friends. There’s your extended family. There’s your immediate family. Brothers and sisters. Parents. Cousins. Husbands and wives. Children. With all these social interactions, all with their different levels of intimacy, who can be completely alone?
That’s not so say that some people don’t feel like they’re alone. I don’t intend to be dismissive of those feelings. And there are some people that do end up alone. Lost on the streets. Lost in their own heads. Lost to their families, lost to even themselves.
So it boils down to this: is it human nature to be drawn to people, to surround yourself with people that you care for and that care for you? Or is it innate to be isolationistic and introspective?
In the end, and at the risk of putting words in Nancy’s mouth, I think her point was that it’s fine to be without a romantic partner. Her post was, after all, about being “single” on Valentine’s Day. And, I agree with her. It’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. But I don’t think being “single” is necessarily the same as being alone.