In a recent comment someone asked, “With all that solitude don’t you miss the interactions with others?” For a full year, I tried to answer that question by intentionally living with others. And, for the past few months, I have been making a good faith effort to develop and maintain three social connections. What I have learned from this experiment is what I knew before I started – that social interaction takes a lot of work, especially when one is over 50 and no longer in the workforce. And, even with the work, the results are unpredicable.
In American society life revolves around three things – money, family and work. If you don’t have these three things you are viewed as deficient. Single people over 30 are viewed with suspicion and pity, those without family are considered loners and/or “black sheep,” and without money you simply don’t exist. So, for someone like me, who has never married or had children, whose family consists of an 83-year-old, disabled mother, and whose financial situation is less than “comfortable” – social interaction is very difficult.
Relationships are built on the ability to exchange something both you and the other person value. So, to get any relationship started you have to have a certain amount of social capital, (something of value to exchange). Between men and women, the social capital used to be beauty and youth for the woman and money for the man, (which is why no matter what age a woman gets to be, she still tries to appear young and beautiful).
When my last surviving aunt, who is 86, moved into a new upscale retirement complex she told me that she was able to make a few friends because, 1) she had a fabulous wardrobe, 2) she dyed her hair and went to a stylist every week, 3) she had a manicurist do her nails, and 4) she had a “youthful attitude.” At her age, she was still being judged by her appearance and her ability to think like a young person. This was her social capital.
I was at a senior center the other day signing up for a class when a woman who appeared to be in her 70’s gave something to the receptionist. She wanted the receptionist to give it to a woman whose last name she could not remember. In trying to describe this woman she said, “Oh you know her, she’s the woman who is desperately needy for friends, the one that brings little desserts and gifts all the time.”
My heart ached for the woman she was talking about. What introvert has not felt the ostracism that comes from “trying” to make friends or from being shunned by the lack of them? When I lived in a communal environment the competition over who was going to be friends with whom was fierce and often vicious. I often felt like I was back in high school again.
Maybe it’s time to stop obsessing over how many friends we have and start asking, “What is a satisying relationship?” I sometimes wonder if I have ever experienced this. Increasingly, I am coming to believe that one must have a core of self respect and self love to even begin looking for one. If there is fragmentation or any form of neediness, the process will start with a faulty foundation. There must be equality and a self that is whole. Relationship needs to begin within by asking the question, “How well do I like and get along with myself?”
Every day I ponder, on some level or another, the question of why I’m alive. I track my internal momentum, my desires, my real wants and needs. In her book, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila visualized herself going through seven rooms, and upon entering the seventh she achieved a state that she described as union with god. As I age, I better understand the idea of living in an interior castle and the need to explore its rooms. This is not a party house where one brings friends and breaks out the beer. It is a serious undertaking that can only be done in silence and solitude by someone who wants to know the truth.
Solitude is not a state that is separate from social interactions. One lives in solitude all the time for the simple reason that no two people are exactly alike. A person may have one friend or twenty, but the place they truly live their life is within themselves. If you can’t get right with yourself, it won’t matter how many people you associate with.
So, the answer to the question, “With all that solitude, don’t you miss the interactions with others?” is no. If I don’t know who I truly am, of what use is a relationship? Whether anyone wants it or not, being lone is the next human challenge. We can envision our loneness as an impenetrable wall or as the bridge to a new level of expanded consciousness. The longer I lone, the more I am moving towards the latter.