Not long ago, the New York Times Magazine published a photograph of an attractive middle-aged woman named Meeca Kim sitting alone at a kitchen table. On one wall behind her are a photograph of her son taken when he was a child and a drawing he made as an adult. The caption explains that she has just returned from visiting her husband in Korea. She is glad to be home, but is thinking about “how everybody’s alone,” her husband, her mother, herself, and says that unless her children visit her, she is lonely.
Mementos of her family fill the house and help to ease her loneliness. “But I am not always lonely,” she continues. “And sometimes when I am all alone, I am so happy and quiet. I think what I like to think, do what I like to do.” Kim has made a clear distinction between loneliness and aloneness. She is lonely when she feels the absence of her family, yet she has no trouble entering aloneness when she reflects on the privilege of having her own private space in which to think and do what she pleases.
We often mistake aloneness and loneliness for each another, but they are not the same. It is true that loneliness is embedded in the aloneness experience—if only because we carry an existential awareness of our mortality and the fragility of our existence—and in that sense, loneliness is a natural feeling that colors all our lives, even if only as a faint background tint. There are of course different intensities of loneliness, ranging from the benign, such as when we want to be with people and no one is available, to the aching loneliness when a loved one dies, to alienation from one’s self and from others that can result from childhood experiences. At times, our loneliness is related to our natural desire for connection with someone who, for whatever reason, is unavailable. The issue for women alone is not that we will never feel lonely. The issue is how aloneness makes us feel about ourselves. What the dictionary definition of aloneness does not make clear is the essential distinction between loneliness and aloneness: that to be “apart from others” means to be in the presence of oneself.
But suppose we have a diminished sense of self? Or believe, as many women do, that we are less than we pretend to be? If so, being alone and free of our usual distractions can actually feel dangerous, calling up our unconscious doubts and fears that, in the words of women I’ve worked with, we are “inadequate,” “fraudulent,” “unworthy.” We fear coming up empty, but of course this isn’t so. We are never empty. What we are is love-starved and in need of the kind of recognition and support we likely missed while growing up. This is when we are most likely to seek someone or something outside ourselves to fill us up, to “complete,” and make us whole.
Meanwhile, the marketplace flourishes, tempting us with endless distractions. When we feel the twinge of loneliness, we can always work ten-hour days, glue ourselves to the cell phone, party or shop till we drop, zone out in TV land, drink or get high, surf the Internet, or “makeover” our bodies, faces, and homes. Yet our feverish efforts to stay “connected” in this wireless age are symptoms of a deeper distress. Despite the proliferation of cell phones, Palm Pilots, iPods, BlackBerries, and the burgeoning repertoire of new gadgets at our disposal, we still feel lonely.
Even when the culture makes it very easy for us to journey away from ourselves, there comes a point when our deeper longings no longer allow such escape. Women alone are then bound to grapple with painful and uncomfortable feelings. But this is a good thing. As we sort out and come to terms with the fact that there will be no rescue, we have a choice—either give up and escape, which some women do, or turn inward to harvest our own resources. In this way, a lonely woman begins her journey back to self. For the lonely woman who resigns herself to her “fate” is a needs-based woman. She is still looking for answers outside herself, whereas the woman alone has given up her fantasy of rescue. No longer despairing of aloneness, she is ready to befriend it—transmuting the shame that has hobbled her into pride in her own sovereignty. Does she still feel lonely at times? How could she not? But she accepts loneliness as part of the human condition and gets on with the rest of her life.
The above is an excerpt from the book On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone
by Florence Falk. Published by Three Rivers Press; March 2008;$13.95US/$15.95CAN; 978-1-4000-9811-8. Copyright © 2008 Florence Falk