The Difference Between “Lonely” and “Alone”

My 21st birthday is coming up this week, and I was trying to think of a celebratory event that I might enjoy.  Clubbing?  Out of the question.  The science museum?  Somehow I doubt most people would enjoy playing with samples of different types of oil in the same way I would.

There remained inviting people on my regular, ideal Saturday night, which involves drinking coffee while reading poetry and medical literature at the discount bookstore, then heading home for a TV dinner, Coke, and an old animated movie.  I then realized that, not only would a lot of people not enjoy this way of spending their Saturday night, but my enjoyment of it would be ruined, because I would no longer be alone.

During my first two years of college, I told everyone (myself included) that anything else could happen during the course of the week, anything at all, and I’d still be okay as long as I had those precious few hours on Saturday to myself.  But as I began to make friends and become more heavily involved in clubs and activities that required my Saturday nights, as well, to be taken up, I realized that my “alone time” would no longer be feasible.

Let’s face it, college is not built for people who like to spend extended amounts of time alone.  I live on campus, which means that I am rarely more than fifteen feet away from another person at any given time.  Eat dinner in your room, or say that you want to spend Saturday night by yourself, and suddenly you’re being “antisocial” and people are “concerned.”  Pfft.

There’s also a more dangerous side to being someone who recharges by spending time alone; sometimes you don’t want to be alone.  The fact is, as much as I hate to admit it, humans are meant to live in groups.  We evolved from creatures who live in groups, we have created elaborate cities and countries to ensure that we do live in groups, and we get lonely when we spend too much time without physical or emotional contact.  (Of course, there are exceptions, but this is the experience of the average person.)

I am a couple days shy of being 21 and I am still trying to figure out how to successfully navigate social interactions involving being alone and being lonely.  If only one could quantitate the exact amount of time needed alone without veering into lonely territory.  If only it were acceptable to simply say, “Hey, I don’t feel like hanging out with anyone tonight,” or “Hey, can you come give me a hug?”

Last night, I walked out to the edge of campus and sat on the swing set, gazing into the frightening, beautiful, vast city lights of Houston, and I felt very, very small and very lonely.  Experience has taught me that even the most reliable people will never be there for you 100% of the time, so at times like that you have to either reach inward for some vestige of strength or turn outward to religion or philosophy for help.  I’ve never been very good at following organized religion.  My relationship with God is complex, changing, and not easily labeled or constrained (as I’ve learned, I am far from the only young person who feels like this.)

So, instead, I stared very hard at the lights until they began to blur (I’m nearsighted, so it wasn’t very hard) and pretended that I was floating through outer space.  My feet were resting on the muddy ground, and the more I concentrated, the more I could feel a slight hum, some combination of my pulse and a nearby generator, perhaps.  There was not another person to be seen, but I could still feel their presence, in the hospitals and in the nearby dorm building, and it gave me the odd feeling of being in two places at once, on Earth and in the furthest reaches of the universe, simultaneously.  I looked down at my phone, which I often feel is my lifeline, and put it aside.

I’ve often tried to describe the feeling of aloneness and silence that I find so rejuvenating.  I suppose it has something to do with balance.  There are definitely times when I need to be around people and hug them and talk to them, and there are times when I do not need anyone else, not at all.  I feel like many other people are the same way.  It’s just a question of how much of each is necessary for our individual personalities.  The balance is not easy to find, but balancing anything is never easy.

In the few minutes I had left before I had to go back to my work, I pushed off from the ground and began to swing.