Solitude was fine as an appetiser, but not as a main course. I thought those opting for a single lifestyle didn’t know what they were missing, but did my non-stop coupling come with a price?
I will never know what it’s like to be one half of one of those adorable older couples I see holding hands on leisurely strolls at sunset, their long history together broadcast by their placid expressions and sympathetic body language. Nor will I be hopscotching through Europe the way my wife and I had planned since the earliest days of our 30-year marriage. Cancer edited such golden moments out of my life. Images of retirement that had always conjured up a playground for two fizzled into a place setting for one.
But don’t waste any sympathy on me. I am living the good life in ways I never might have in the constant company of another human being. I’ve got a different kind of companion now – solitude – and I’m happy to report that we’ve got a good thing going.
My previous relationship with solitude was only fleeting. I would encounter it on the occasional walk in the woods, in the lap of meditation, or in the early morning hours during bouts of sleeplessness. But when my wife died, my relationship with solitude mushroomed. Our small house suddenly felt the size of an airplane hangar, and my ticker tape of anxious thoughts reverberated in the gaping silence. Solitude was fine as an appetiser, but not as a main course. It felt barren and forbidding, and it all but consumed me.
Before long, I met someone who helped fill the void with joyful activity. Unfortunately, that relationship didn’t last, and I once again found myself nose to nose with solitude. But this time it didn’t intimidate me. Rather than attempting to fill the void, I stared into it. It seemed to beckon me.
I was entering new territory. I hadn’t been without a steady partner for my entire adult life, save for a couple of months here or there, because being alone always left me feeling panicky and itchy for connection. But did my non-stop coupling come with a price? I had learned much about myself in the mirror of my relationships with others, but could my education be complete without turning the mirror on myself?
At first, solitude felt like a negative equation. I would see a chair with no one in it, a lone towel drying on a bathroom hook. Solitude blared absence, and absence bred anxiety. I was accustomed to sharing the oxygen in my living space, and now it seemed that there was too much air, too much light, too much everything. The first time I had ever gotten drunk, I hastily consumed half a bottle of blackberry brandy. First nothing. Then it hit me all at once. Bam! That’s how it felt to be living alone. Suddenly untethered.
My woozy first impressions of solitude waned as I grew more and more comfortable with the silence that lapped at its shores. I began to wonder whether silence was something more than the nothingness my senses made it out to be. Silence felt raw and mighty, like forks of lightning, but healing, too, when the soundlessness surrounding me slithered its way inside my body. The gobs of quietude I was experiencing now, partnerless, removed from the steady hum of day-to-day communication, no doubt helped trigger this awakening.
Although void of sound, silence has a language all its own. When I would sit down with my wife to unpack my problem sack, we’d bat ideas around until I found my footing. But these days I right myself using a different approach. Silence exhorts me to tap into an intelligence I rarely turned to previously – my own. Two heads aren’t always better than one. Others can listen to me, but they can’t see inside me. The language of silence bids me to look within for answers. Its tone is gentle, but insistent. If I am patient, the answers appear. And when they don’t, my questions will have cracked open doors to be burst through on a different day.
What was my frantic need for connection all about? Is an individual experience any less fulfilling than a shared experience? Were there parts of me I neglected in order to create harmony in my relationships? These are among the questions that hang before me like puffs of smoke, amorphous, lingering. What I no longer have questions about is the important role solitude plays in my life. I have been many things to many people, but what I haven’t been until now is so bright a light unto myself. Against a backdrop of solitude, I am gathering pieces of myself strewn over a lifetime of comings and goings and fitting them into a puzzle that is slowly revealing its subject.
Happy hubby that I was, I thought those opting for a single lifestyle didn’t know what they were missing. Now that I’m standing on the other side of the divide, I can see how little I knew about them, and also how little I knew about myself.
John Ptacek’s writing explores the unknown assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. They appear on his website, On Second Thought.
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