Twenty five years ago this summer, I embarked upon a complicated lifelong relationship with being alone. It was an oppressively hot late August night in Indiana. Restless and bored, I stole out of my house on my sister’s motorbike and drove stealthily toward a friend’s house and the promise of a small gathering of local kids from her neighborhood. Flying along the pitchblack city streets, I wasn’t thinking about the potential of danger — I was only thinking about alleviating the loneliness of a late summer Wednesday night. I didn’t see the car in my path, and as I turned the corner, I hit it head on– or rather, knee on. As I lay stunned and bleeding on the street, my first thought was not that I was badly injured. My first thought was, I was going to miss the party.
I spent five weeks in the hospital that summer healing from a badly broken leg and an even more deeply wounded ego. I remember standing in front of the mirror in the hospital, looking into my own eyes, and realizing that I had to find a way to stand myself, even when no one was around. But soon after my release from the hospital, I began compulsively filling every free moment with friends, activities, and goals. Hyper-extroversion served me well for the next decade as I racked up a considerable collection of friends, accomplishments, and affiliations. Then at age 25, I found myself living in rural New Hampshire, starting over again with no friends or family within easy reach. I worked hard at my job at a local college, and then at 6, or 7, or 8 pm –I went home. Home to an empty apartment, and to my thoughts and my feelings. Every night, I cooked dinner alone. I ate dinner alone. I climbed into bed alone and I awoke to the alarm clock alone. I shoveled the snow, I folded the laundry, I paid the bills. I wrote a lot, and I cried more than I ever had, and somewhere around the fortieth or fiftieth time I watched myself loading my groceries into my car and driving home alone, something clicked. I was beginning to like myself. Not only was I beginning to like myself, but I was beginning to understand myself: the buried inner longings of my heart, the unfinished business of my childhood, the quirky things I craved and despised, and the deepest truths that I could only access when I was able to finally stop running toward other people, things, and adventures.
My time in New Hampshire taught me that although I continue to be a natural extrovert, I believe in both ardently cultivating, and fiercely protecting, time alone. Each day, I set aside time from my job, my marriage, the TV and the laptop, and hold on with both arms to a silent sense of myself. Far from creating isolation, I find that I’ve never felt more connected with the world than when I am simply listening to my breath. I believe that the peaceful stillness inside me that I can access best when I am by myself joins my life in unison with the inner quiet of all human beings, and forms the web of compassion that it essential to our ability to heal the broken parts of the world. This silence is both timelessness, and spaciousness, and finding it– and savoring it- has been the hardest and most rewarding task of my life.
I believe that making peace with life by making friends with myself was only possible through a commitment to being alone. The voice I found in that hospital room at age 13, and found again on the country roads of New Hampshire a decade ago, will be my constant companion through every day of my life, and will sustain me through the end of this life as well, when I am certain I will both be alone and connected as never before. For in being alone I found, and continue to find, myself, and the beautiful silence that connects us all to each other, to God, and to home.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.