On being alone versus being lonely (or coming to grips with the absence of invitations)

Friday night. I see the posts on facebook: peers are out on the town, burning the club down.
Saturday morning. I watch the stories on snapchat: friends on adventures without me.
And I’m alone, sweating in an empty Korean spa, writing and reading until I fall asleep.

The ego is a silly, silly thing. It wants to be invited, and also quietly revels in the chance to say, “No, thank you.” It wants to be popular, but when I find myself in an uncomfortable position because of its insidious influence, it tells me that there’s something wrong with me for not enjoying the social status of invitations. The social pressures of undergrad still follow us around: we want to be liked and we want to spend time in the company of others. When we aren’t with others, we are alone and it is easy to feel lonely.

But, there’s a fine difference between being alone and distracted, and being alone and present. The former is easy throw headphones on, scroll through your phone, and shut out the world around you. The latter is difficult being aware of the sensations and happenings around you, without dwelling on the past or ruminating on the future. In these moments of simple and easy delight, eureka tends to strike: I developed the idea for my podcast while floating and most of the long-form reflection seeds are planted during my walks. The latter is a practice, the former is procrastination.

It is, or it can be, difficult to tease out the difference between being alone and being lonely. To many, they are one and the same. I’ve found that I only feel lonely when I’m alone and know that there are others out there together: FOMO. In that regard, whenever you are alone, you can feel lonely, if you allow your attention to drift to what others are doing. But, if you cultivate alone time, solitary activities, and masturdating, you can learn the subtleties of your own personality the differing and varied aspects of your character, as unique as members of an extended family.

I’ve learned to enjoy my time alone. I’ve also learned to enjoy the time spent with my small, but growing, tribe. The smaller scale experiences, spent with more silence and less frenetic activity, allow for more happenstance and serendipities. When I walk the mile from my apartment to campus, I no longer wear my earbuds to crush podcasts: instead, I listen to the birds, hear the honking horns, and allow myself to be alone, but open. I can’t tell you how many small and delightful conversations that strangers have started with me. Or lost drivers stopping by the sidewalk to ask me directions. Despite, or because of, my 9ft long bamboo walking stick.

At what point does a friend stop inviting you to things, because they know you’ll say no? Half a dozen? Twenty? We are approaching the point in our lives where we don’t have time and especially don’t have the energy like we did in undergrad the free afternoons and weekends are rare and need to be spent recharging the batteries for the strong drain to follow. Inviting everyone in the class to social gatherings would stress out the inviter, the invitees, and no one would arrive home feeling refreshed.

There are so many peers in medical school that I highly respect. Of those, with most I can stop and talk in the hallways for a lovely five minute chat and catch-up. From there, there are far fewer that I meet outside of campus, perhaps for a quick dinner or group outing. And the list further boils down to a small handful, the ones with whom I would spend an entire day or weekend. Finally, only one or two that help me recharge, that I’d want to see after a long day of lectures and clinic.

And so, I am entirely willing to sacrifice the invitations, the selfish joy of having people think of me and want me around, in order to cultivate my quiet little garden of presence and thought. And, I hope others are doing the same, by forgoing the invitation. By silencing my silly ego, I can allow myself to do what needs to be done, and my peers can live their own unique and natural lives.

Being alone without being lonely is a practice, sometimes it is one step forwards with two steps back, but I have found that it is my most essential practice.

Long Form Sundays

On Death Podcast

7 thoughts on “On being alone versus being lonely (or coming to grips with the absence of invitations)

  1. Great thoughts. Looking at alone time (voluntary or involuntary) as a practice/positive has done big things for my confidence, security and happiness.

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