Being alone vs. Being lonely

Even though we graduated over 8 months ago (!!!), it still hasn’t fully hit me. Living in Laos just feels like an extended study abroad and the full impact of being a “real person” isn’t something I’ve absorbed yet. One of the biggest changes I’ve felt, though, has been in terms of living outside of the campus bubble. Between living with my best friends, going to classes, extracurricular activities, and hanging out with people on weekends, being alone was a rare phenomenon. Sure, there would be pockets of aloneness during the day, but it was unheard of to spend a day without speaking to another human being.

Not so much here.

While I have a small community of great friends in Savannakhet and Vientiane, I spend significantly more time alone than in the last several years. I enjoy interacting with people and at first the prospect of loneliness was an intimidating component of this year’s adventure.

Yet, this year has been far from a lonely one so far, and has reminded me that there is a huge difference between being lonely and being alone.

Loneliness is something independent of how many people are around you; some of the most lonely times in my life have been during those college years, when despite being surrounded by people, I still felt isolated and misunderstood. Loneliness instead indicates inner turbulence – a feeling of emotional solidarity, a feeling that no one nowhere understands you or what you’re experiencing, and unease at that prospect.

Being alone is a vastly different experience. Sure, being alone can be lonely, but it doesn’t deserve the anathema with which it is often viewed. Being alone can also be a liberating experience – I can devote time to projects I care about and no one is around to judge me for binging a season of a TV show in a day or dancing on my bed to the newest Beyonce single. Enjoying this time has also been an accomplishment; it’s a celebration of being completely and unapologetically content with my own company. It lets me define myself without being bound to how others perceive me. Being alone gives me the space to process and understand the world around me without the filters of the people I associate with.

Yet, being seen in the world alone is often conflated with being lonely. I really enjoy going to movies and nice restaurants on my own, but several of my friends have expressed great trepidation at the thought of asking for a table for one. Let’s abandon that stigma. What’s wrong with watching a movie alone in a theater? You’re sitting in the dark and (hopefully) not talking the entire time. It’s perfectly “acceptable” in society’s eyes to watch a movie at home alone, so why must being in public be any different? Same goes to restaurants. I love food more than most things in the world and eating good food is a large component of my emotional well-being. That’s not something I’m ready to sacrifice, just because there’s not always  someone to sit across the table from me. In fact, going to fancier restaurants with my Kindle as my dinner date is one of my favorite activities. So let’s stop casting assumptions of loneliness on people that are comfortable enough with themselves to do things alone. Go ahead, ask for a table for one, and order dessert and that extra drink – no one has to know.

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