How to be Alone

I haven’t blogged much this year. There’s been plenty to write about but I haven’t really felt like it very often. I’ve also found it hard to read fiction because real life has made caring much about made up ones difficult. So this isn’t a late review of Jonathan Franzens’s collection of essays of the same title (although it is very good and his latest novel, Purity is one of the few I’ve read and enjoyed in 2016).

About 18 months ago Mrs B and I started the process of separation. This year has been one of adjusting and learning how to be alone. Loneliness has started to become something which is being talked about and taken seriously. Prior to her horrific murder, the local MP, Jo Cox was working on a campaign and commission to look into and tackle loneliness and this is being launched in January 2017. I have a degree of scepticism about how practically this might work but it is good that someone is trying. There very clearly is a lot of low hanging fruit – getting people to look out more for older people in their communities or struggling new mothers – but the linked article rightly points out a huge number of different types of people who are suffering from loneliness. There’s an irony that the issue of men’s loneliness is being led on by the Royal Voluntary Service which was established for Women. The typically cheery main storyline of EastEnders over the festive season focused on Lee’s lonely spiral towards attempting suicide, with suicide being the largest killer of men under 45. How much can the public-spirited folk who organise such campaigns really understand about the people they are trying to help (in this regard I think the most important part of the story linked above is Seema Kennedy MP talking about how lonely she felt after first having a child)?

My own personal journey hasn’t been so harrowing, although I have had the odd occasion of feeling almost overwhelmingly teary (oddly usually at Waitrose on a Saturday) or ruefully musing that it is good thing that I am utterly incapable of tying a knot. Strangely, despite having had the week since Christmas alone it is only tonight in a few moments while the returned son is catching up with his friends on his dearly missed XBox that I’ve been able to write.

I’ve been fortunate in maintaining a friendly relationship with Mrs B, still spending a lot of time with Oli and discovering that you are never really alone if you have a dog. Yet there are still times when I can go days on end without speaking to another adult properly, particularly as I work from home half the week. So a lot of this year has been about changing that a bit (you’ve got to work with your own personality – I’ve never been one for striking up conversations with random folk) and about learning how to be OK with it more generally.

I think people are not that good at being alone and it is too easy to let that turn into feeling lonely rather than to embrace the peace of solitude. I’ve found it surprisingly pleasant to go to a pub on my own with a book and enjoy there being others around without feeling that not actually being with them was a problem or a loss. I’ve dabbled with online dating, largely on the basis that if I didn’t have a go soon after being in a relationship I’d most likely have completely forgotten what one involved if I waited until I was really desperate to have another one. What I’ve learned from it is that if you’re not really that good at striking up conversations with random folk in real life you’re probably not going to be much better at doing so on the basis of a collection of photos and a pen portrait. And that there are a lot of tall nurses, hairdressers and horse-owning middle-aged women who have discovered triathlon since becoming single.

Lots of think pieces are being written about how modern life and its increasing reliance on social media is part of the problem, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve been surprised at the kindness of complete strangers on Twitter. Particularly when contrasted to some of the things apparent real life friends have thought appropriate (although to be fair, the vast majority have been lovely). But unlike real life, muting and blocking people online is much easier to do without feeling guilt, and even unpleasantness can be dismissed by remembering that these people don’t know you (which is harder to do with people who you thought did).

We’re all different and so different things will work for different people. Some will have their lives improved by kindly volunteers knocking on their door to check if they’re OK. Others by knowing that actually people are interested in their problems if they want to say to talk about them. And maybe some others will learn that you can be on your own without being lonely, just as sometimes you can feel at your loneliest when surrounded by others when you’d rather something different.

So, roll on 2017. I’m confident that I can face you with the luxury of being upset by celebrity deaths or appalled by the political choices of other people when in 2016 such things had much less impact on my real life than reality. I might even write a bit more.

Happy New Year.