So, not too long ago (a few weeks?), I was featured on the Today show for a piece on the joys of living alone. I’ve been living that way for about a decade, and loving it–and I’m certainly not alone in that respect. One of the experts showcased for this segment was sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who has a new book out, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, in which he explores what’s been called the biggest demographic shift since the Baby Boom–the huge increase in the number of people who live alone–31 million to be exact, making it more common than any other household unit, including the nuclear family.
However. I will say, I was disappointed with how the live-alone trend was and has been depicted. Why? Let’s take the Today show clip for example. Look–I know my place. I was an anecdote for the piece–a single illustrative example of the trend, and raw material for the producers to draw on to add color and concreteness to the story. I was psyched about that–yes! I get to share real insight into the real reasons why people love this and why it’s so important.
What Was Cut (and Unfortunately Wasn’t)
But as you can see, out of my hour-long conversation with the producer (a very lovely guy in fact), what remains is footage of me feeding my cat and sitting on my couch looking idle while Ann Curry narrates that I’m open to meeting someone with whom to share my living situation–making it seem that my choice is provisional at best. The exact OPPOSITE of what I wanted to connote. This is how it goes–it just is what it is. It’s like the Today show already KNEW what it wanted (single woman feeding her cat) and went about answering its own questions. I don’t fault them–they have to deliver what the viewing audience half expects. And that’s what they did.
What really pushed it over the edge for me was where the segment also pulled some tweets from people on living alone, and if they pulled the very best they could find, it saddened me that “eating ice cream in the tub” and “having the tv to myself” were the stand-out responses. Really? Really?
Of course, I’m not all that shocked–I know the process and not in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get more than a breath in, just was hoping it was more than denouncing “crazy cat lady” as a raging insult. (Duh.) But like anyone who’s had their best efforts left on the cutting room floor, I was a bit disappointed that none of the more insightful or even fresh responses to questions like “What is the benefit of living alone” and “why do you prefer it to any other arrangement” made the air.
My concern here, by the way, isn’t “Why didn’t I get to showcase how brilliant I am” but more like “I wanted to elevate the discussion and talk about something other than my cat!” There was an opportunity here to help speak for the many thousands of people who live alone and are tired of being put in the quirky box. Because that’s what this segment basically did: Made people who live alone out to be people who are really selfish about their TV remotes and really weird about ice cream.
Can we not do better than this? I think we can.
Being Social Isn’t Compensatory Behavior for Living Alone–It’s Called Having a Life
I don’t think most people who live alone are quirky–and I hate that this is the portrait painted of them. That they are so “weird” they can’t have anyone else around. As if being married, coupled, or otherwise, with other people around, is a normalizing factor? I doubt that. (Has anyone seen most people’s dads? Sorry dads.)
One of the producers at Today did a blog post on living alone, and while it’s fun and lighthearted, she mentions that to fend off loneliness, she “carefully plans social interactions” — which makes it sound as if engaging in social activity is a band-aid to the mortal wound of being alone. I kind of see it as, well, having a life.
It’s the reverse if you ask me: The world is so overly and deeply connected, there’s almost no escape, even when are your home’s only occupant (have you ever tried to get any focused work done with your email open or texts buzzing?). I don’t connect in order to avoid loneliness–I see my home as a trap door away from a world of hyperconnectivity. It’s my stay against insanity.
The Introvert / Extrovert Thing
The differences in how we perceive our connections and our aloneness has, I think, a lot to do with our introvert/extrovert tendencies. And by that I don’t mean socially inept v. overly friendly (those are wrongheaded ideas about what those terms mean), but more along the lines with what Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power, told me: Extroverts are like solar panels, getting their energy from exposure; introverts are more like rechargeable batteries–they need to plug in and power down to store up our reserves.
That said, introverts may not only perhaps be more likely to seek out a living-alone situation, but may fare better than someone who’s both extroverted AND perhaps finds herself alone when it wasn’t her choice (as seems to be the case with that producer).
Regardless, I will say that while an extrovert may see her socializing as a way to relieve the burden of being alone, and she may experience it that way, I just am not crazy about what that says or assumes about living alone–that we have to make efforts to “plan our social interactions” otherwise we’d drown in a pool of sorrow. Not so! I connect online and go out and connect with people in person–not because “I live alone and I have to do this” but because that’s what living IS.
Why Live Alone? I’ll Tell You
Here are some of the benefits of living alone–and none of them involve eating food at odd hours:
Peace and quiet. If you want it, when you want it. You can always open up your social channels and your front door and let the world in, but you can also shut them out.
A better appreciation for the people in your life. One of the experts in that segment, a journalist I think, was quoted as saying that living alone magnifies your personality. I’m thinking this was taken out of context and I’m not sure I get it. In fact, I think it does the opposite–it makes you very aware of who you have in your life, who you want in your life, and why. Because when your default is a room to yourself, you are in the wonderful position of choosing who you will keep in and who you will leave out–and why. (Those who don’t make this choice are, I think, fearful of something else, perhaps of cutting ties even with jerkoffs for fear of being left alone.)
Room to develop, cultivate, and create. I fully believe that I’m a better friend, lover, colleague, etc, when I am able to live on my own terms. I can cultivate and address my needs and feel restored and ready to connect with someone else–and I feel that I do so more richly because I have something to bring to that relationship: my best self.
Not only that, but there has been documented research showing that groupthink really doesn’t hold a candle to focused individual work. I have the benefit of living and working in my own little bubble, and I realize not everyone does. But even if you do work in a shared and open work environment, having the space at the end of the day not only to decompress but do some focused creative thinking can be the most productive work you do all day. (Check out this piece in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer on individual work vs. group think from earlier this year.)
Do I ALSO like having the option of housecleaning naked so I don’t soil my clothes? Sure. But the tree of solitude bears far more fruit than what two-minute morning show clips will ever show you. That I promise you.
(P.S. I will add that I never–ever–said or implied to the producers that my living situation was a kind of provisional state, a holding pattern until I “someday meet someone”–and yet that is also what they say in the segment. Could it be that I do decide to one day share my living quarters? Possibly. But that’s different than acting as if my home now is some kind of perch I’m clinging to until some winged beast comes and frees me from my loneliness. I’m pretty sure living alone is, in itself, a way to really spread your wings.)