On Being Alone

The following is a repost from a previous travel blog that chronicled my 3 month road trip across the USA. I travelled by myself for the majority of the trip, and the following post is a reflection on the experience. 

When I first set out for this extended journey, I was questioned many times about traveling alone. My friends and family seemed to be more concerned about my solitude than I was; nothing about traveling alone ever struck me as odd or potentially difficult. The major setback of being by myself would be loneliness, but I don’t have a tendency for feeling lonely.  I do, however, have a driving force of independence, a strong desire to do things my own way, and a general steadfastness to the way I approach my life. So doing a road trip alone seemed to be the only appropriate choice. So far, it has been and it has been an extremely positive experience. Now nine weeks into my journey, I have had a lot of time to reflect on this decision and more generally, the concepts of loneliness, solitude and independence.

When I was in high school, I remember thinking that loneliness could only occur if you didn’t like your own company and needed the distraction of others. This was a conclusion I made because at the time, I only felt lonely in moments of self-doubt, during the times when I felt I needed the positive reinforcement of my friends. Perhaps this is true to a certain extent, I believe loneliness can stem from a need to be distracted from an individual’s negative thoughts and feelings. But I also realize now that it’s much more complex than that. Loneliness is much more complicated than simple dislike of self.

I think loneliness indicates a feeling of longing for that which is not present or available, as well as a desire to be fulfilled by something beyond that which is offered at any particular moment in time. It necessitates dependency on the external and requires a reliance on another. I have found myself fighting this dependency at various moments throughout my life. As someone who strives to be self-sufficient and independent, reliance upon another is contrary to the individual I set out to be. But sometimes, independence can be lonely. So I ask myself, why is that? Why should anyone feel lonely?

What is it about being human that makes us crave connection with others… that makes us desire something beyond what we can offer to ourselves or what the surrounding environment may offer us? I haven’t been able to answer this question. But what I do know is that humans are tribal, we’ve evolved to work together, form connections, and protect one another from harm. We feel love and we feel anger. We feel sadness and frustration. We feel happiness and we feel confusion. And most often, at least in my own experience, those feelings are fueled by our relationships with others. When’s the last time you felt an emotion without having it directly correlate to another person? Without other people, without our own egos we don’t feel emotions, we simply feel sensations. Those sensations (whether pleasure or pain) only become emotions when justified by the environmental factors leading to their rise. If I feel angry, it’s usually because someone did something to anger me (or I angered myself with my own actions). This same logic can be applied to most of the emotions humans feel, I think.

But here’s the kicker: The times during which I have felt loneliest on this journey have not been the times when I am most isolated. No, they have been the times when I experience a visceral emotion and there is no one to share it with. It’s not simply the fact that human interactions are the root of emotions. When independent emotional reactions occur, we also seem to habitually want to share them. For instance, I have stood in the midst of America’s most beautiful landscapes and felt awe, excitement and joy. And I can attribute these sensations to the natural beauty of Earth. But then I look to my right, and there is no one there to share that with. The images and thoughts get locked into my head and will remain memories that exist only for me. Fifty years from now, I won’t be able to say to someone “remember when we went to Yosemite for the first time and stood under El Cap, and our jaws literally dropped?” That’s a memory that only I was there for and I can only share through story telling, not mutual reminiscing. And it’s only in moments like that that I experience loneliness. My biggest regret is not my solitude (in fact, the freedom and deep reflection it has afforded me are blessed gifts), it is all the missing “remember when’s” from this journey. There are many moments I have had that would have been intensified and perhaps even more joyous if they had been shared with a loved one. And that notion is something I have learned these past nine weeks, and is something I will hold with me for the rest of my life. Solitude and independence are great things. But shared experience is always better.

I don’t want to end this post with the impression that I have been lonely by doing this trip by myself. That simply has not been my experience. But I cannot put it better than my best friend Marissa did, so I will conclude with something she said (sort of fitting to end a post about being alone with a quotation from a friend):

“You are learning what is important to you. And that is sort of what this trip is about in a way, I think. You wanted to figure out where to live, and you figured out it’s not where you are, but who you are with.

Thank you, Marissa. And in two weeks, I will be with you as you get in the car with me and help me finish this trip off right. 🙂

And as for the parts of this country I’ll be missing by cutting the trip short and heading home early: well, they’ll still be there for many years to come and when I ultimately go see them (in Summer, hopefully) there will be someone else standing there with me, sharing my joy.

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