first person

The Gift of Loneliness

It is time, finally, to tell the story of “The Bag of Shame.” This happened long ago, when I was very single, living alone, and dreading Christmas. Anxiety for me is a baseline state, but the prospect of Christmas used to induce a special panic — an apprehension of extreme loneliness — together with an impulse to alleviate it. That year, a man I had been dating — or, rather, sleeping with from time-to-time — invited me to accompany him on a ski vacation for the holiday week. It was a surprising invitation. We saw each other only occasionally, and strictly on a booty-call basis. He was amusing, but no one with what I would have called Long Term Potential. We were not close. I had not met his family, nor he mine. Nevertheless, as a single person, a Jewish person with zero Christmas heritage, and a person easily irritated by the suffocating requirements of seasonal cheer, it seemed like an okay alternative to what I had planned — which was nothing. I said yes. When I told my friend S, she — who knew Booty Call Man — asked me what I was thinking.

“It’s something to do,” I answered, trying to sound flippant, like an adventuress.

“You could go to the movies,” she said, a phrase that has resonated down the ages. Even now, whenever I am on the brink of a decision that may cost me, in time or money or self-respect, I pose the hypothetical to myself: Would it be better to go to the movies right now?

I tell the story of “The Bag of Shame” now as a gift to my younger, single friends who live alone. Nothing makes a single person feel more single, and more anxious, and more anxious about being single, than a holiday that perpetuates a whole lot of myths about family togetherness at a moment when togetherness is not an option. For more than a decade, starting in my later 20s, I lived alone, and during that time was more or less constantly worried that my single status would be never-ending, and worse: that it signaled some kind of factory defect in me. In my world at the time, the existential question of aloneness was a constant preoccupation — for me, for my friends, for my mother (especially) — its drumbeat accompanying all our activities and conversation, like the hum of an old refrigerator in a small apartment.

And that was then. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, the number of people under 35 who are “un-partnered” has risen to 61 percent from 56 percent over the past decade. Aloneness and loneliness are not the same thing, but one begets the other: the former U.S. Surgeon General has called loneliness the public health crisis of our time. And the experience of loneliness today is qualitatively different from when I was young. Back then, the universe I inhabited was prosperous, stable: the corporation I worked for matched my 401K. Today, millennials’ solitude exists against a backdrop of massive political and environmental and financial disruptions that can be accessed through Twitter at any time of day. Their anxiety may be neurotic, in other words, but at the same time it’s understandable, even rational.

Booty Call Man and I had an awkward time out West. We had previously spent a fair amount of time in bars, but never face-to-face at a restaurant with cloth napkins in our laps and never, certainly, navigating the intrinsic awkwardness of a hotel room. Plus, I’m not much of a skier, and we had to negotiate that should-we-ski-together-or-separately dynamic, but without any of the goodwill or history that real couples have. Our sojourn was a performance of coupledom begotten by a mutual fear of seasonal loneliness, and so it was also sad. Still, compared to a long weekend inventing “projects” in my apartment, I might have preferred it, if it hadn’t ended how it did.

The day or so before we were to leave, Booty Call Man got a call from work, and an assignment that required him to depart separately from me. At the airport, before we boarded different planes, he asked me a favor. Would I carry a bag home for him, a small black duffel filled with the high-end ski gear he would not need on the final leg of his trip? I said sure and we parted, half relieved and half cringing and half fond. It had been weird, I concluded, but not dismally or destructively weird. And then I never heard from him again.

Well, I did. After he got home from the business trip, he dodged my calls for a week or two, and when we finally we made plans to meet in a bar, he was with a bunch of friends and barely looked at me. It was awful, and I understood that our effortful intimacy had corroded the thin connection between us. There was nothing left, and I felt, briefly, the injury of being so obviously dispensable. So in retaliation I kept his duffel, which I named “The Bag of Shame,” and appropriated its expensive contents for myself.

Evolutionarily speaking, humans are designed for cohabitation. Even the expectation that children sleep alone, behind closed doors, is a Victorian-era development, a signalling of affluence more than a developmental necessity. Experiments in mice have shown that even rodents become anxious when forced to live alone: take away a mouse’s cage-mates and its self-protective instincts fail. A non-anxious mouse, when left alone in an open field, will expeditiously run to find shelter (and other mice), but an anxious mouse — who has lived in an artificial solitude designed by scientists — will in the same circumstance become paralyzed, and uncertain of what to do. Other experiments, on humans, have shown that anxious people — whether made anxious by stress, poverty, or faulty brain wiring — make poor decisions. Taken together, these experiments explain, perhaps, why I miscalculated, wrongly believing myself to be invulnerable instead of guarding against a hurt that any sensible person might have seen coming.

But whereas my crappy decision-making usually led me headlong into messy romantic entanglements, my millennial friends have the opposite problem. Raised to be super achievers, their singleness is more sanitized. They describe to me dwelling places like controlled ecosystems in which online mattress shopping takes on disproportionate importance and human visitors are rare. When perfection is the standard, other flawed humans fall short. To alleviate loneliness, “you have to be willing to be vulnerable,” says Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at Yale.  When you share a living space, “people will see you when you’re sick, and when you’re wearing no makeup. Millennials are taught to exude perfectionism and to be perfect. They wonder, ‘Will people like me if they see me for who I am?”

Loneliness and anxiety work together in a feedback loop, and my younger friends describe it as such, spiral. Twitter paralysis — global warming! the tax plan! — leads to anxiety leads to more takeout and more Netflix. This is followed by a self-critical determination to “get out there” and join a club, go on a date, become politically involved, which is followed, in turn, by discouragement, passivity, and Twitter again. My friends are self-aware: they know their mental spinning is unhealthy (Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general under Obama compared chronic loneliness to a lifetime habit of smoking 15 cigarettes a day) and their self-recrimination contributes to their anguish. But how to stop? When bound up in that spiral, advice from ‘happiness’ experts — plant a garden! — feels so off. If only breaking the cycle was that easy.

And here is where I take the privilege of imparting wisdom, earned through decades of experience. Be alone. Aloneness is a state equal to any other; it is, actually, a thing that every human has to episodically endure. Independent of culture’s expectations, it has no intrinsic moral weight. Besides, singlehood has so many advantages, which vanish instantaneously with the onset of family life. First among these is its radical liberty: from sleep schedules, school schedules, mealtime schedules, from other people’s particularities about air-conditioning and nighttime lighting and minimum savings account balances. When you live alone, you can drop a sock on the floor and leave it there for days. You can eat at the kitchen counter or on the couch. You can read all day and not speak to another soul, or your best friend can come over and drink coffee in your bed.

The year after the Bag of Shame, I spent Christmas alone. I went for an icy long run wearing my appropriated gear, and then roasted a chicken and watched a movie and went to bed. It was not amazing. The day felt endless, and I marked each passing hour with a calculation of the superior happiness of every other person in America and felt my loserdom strongly. But in my misery, I also felt honest, and I had enough perspective to know that my loneliness was temporary. The next day, my friends came back from their childhood homes and complained about their parents, and I was contented again.

Recently, I traveled to the Midwest to visit my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. We had tickets on a cheapie airline, the kind that charges maddening incremental luggage fees. Determined to evade those fees, we packed for the weekend in an array of small-sized  carry-on bags, stuffing all the detritus of family life into three satchels that would easily fit under the seats in front of us: protein bars, apples, bathing suits, pjs, shaving stuff, makeup, power cords, Kindles, a stuffed animal, and workout gear. I was amused to realize, as I stood in line waiting to board at the gate, that the one I carried was the Bag of Shame.

The Gift of Loneliness