Much as Americans cherish rugged individualists in movies and novels and the lore of the pioneers, it has been a different story when it comes to everyday people living ordinary lives. Real people who live alone, and people who are single (regardless of whether they live on their own), are more often suspected than celebrated.
When I was researching Singled Out, I found that one of the most dogged myths about single people is that they are selfish and self-centered. It’s not true – that’s why I call it a myth – but it persists. How could single people, or solo dwellers, know how to sustain any kind of a relationship? How could they feel anything but loneliness? That’s the old story.
Happily, a new perspective is emerging.
I have been interviewing people about how they live today. (Here’s a link if you want to tell me about yourself.) For example, do they live alone or with someone else? If alone, just how alone are they? If with others, who are those people and how do their lives intersect?
Toward the end of the interview, I ask participants to play the role of the sage, and dispense advice to other people about how to live. One person I interviewed, who has lived with other people and has lived alone, said this:
“I think that unless people are comfortable living alone, they have trouble living with anyone else.”
You may know the name Sherry Turkle from her most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Just this weekend, Turkle, a psychology professor at M.I.T. who for decades has been studying the role of technology in our lives, also came out in favor of knowing how to be alone.
In an essay in the New York Times, she took on the ubiquity of texting and Twittering and Facebooking and checking our iPhones, even when we are with other people. (I seem to remember a New Yorker cartoon with a caption that said something like, “Let’s all get together this weekend and stare at our iPhones.”)
With our gush of quick tweets and truncated texts, she argues, we think we are connecting but what we are getting is not the full, rich experience of an actual conversation or meaningful interaction with another human. She thinks workplaces would be improved if a day a week were set aside for real conversations – no emailing or tweeting or texting allowed. In her own home, she has “device-free zones.”
About our misunderstanding of aloneness and loneliness, she says this:
“We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely. If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely.”
I like this hypothesis. As far as I know, though, it is just that. I would love to see some systematic research on the links among the ability to be alone, loneliness, skill at living with others, and the ability to forge and maintain genuine connections with other people. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.
Cowboy photo available from Shutterstock.