Thursday, March 11, 2021

In Love with Social Isolation

It’s an intriguing story. The woman in question, early to mid 30s and alone, has been self-isolating for months now-- as have many other people. As she faces the end of the enforced isolation, she finds that she will not miss being alone.

Presumably, she likes her company. She might dislike the atmosphere in her office. She has built herself a self-enclosed set of routines, revolving around her pets and her job-- the latter requiring less time than usual. 

So, she is not looking to plunge back into socializing. She seems to have very little she wants to plunge into. She has a couple of friends she sees from time to time, but that’s it. She has an ex-boyfriend who dismissed her via text message, but whom she would not mind seeing again. Her contemporaries are mostly ensconced in family, with husbands and children. She now has far less in common with them, so they tend to keep her at a distance.

She has found something like serenity, and she seems to dread having to go out and to meet people. In truth, one strains to find anything wrong with her reaction. It is not what the doctor ordered, but it does seem to suit her.

The only error she makes is asking for advice from New York Magazine’s Ask Polly column. About that, more later.

So, is there really something wrong with this picture?

This pandemic year felt like it was actually good for me, as obscene as that might be to say. I was in a safe place when the world ground to a halt, and I had probably been needing a break for a long, long time. The office closed and I was able to cut back my hours at work. I start my day with a walk with the dog in the morning and then breakfast for her and the cats. They all nap while I work. I play music by myself on the weekends and make elaborate meals for dinner. I watch movies on the couch with the pets piled all around me until I fall asleep. There is little to no human interaction. My life outside of this has been whittled down to maybe a friend or two I can grab coffee with once a month, if that.

The only thing remotely wrong about this picture is that she does not feel that she can share her experience with anyone else. While others are going crazy being alone, she likes it.

Being normally constituted, she knows better than to tell her friends. After all, mothers with small children have been victimized by politicians and by the teachers’ unions. They and their children are suffering and will be suffering for quite some time. 

So, she is quite right to imagine that she cannot really relate to their difficulties, and that, by comparison, her serenity feels abnormal.

In the past, she had a boyfriend, but that relationship does not seem to have been very promising:

Now approaching my mid-30s, I’m finding as people get married, and have kids, and move, it’s hard to keep up with the few I do have. I reached out a lot last year, but I rarely heard back. Along the way, I got back in touch with an ex who still lives in my city. (I know, I know.) He broke up with me in a text. Again. I’ve been sad, but hardly surprised. I like to think that I reached out to him because in spite of everything, I do love this jackass and love feels like something worth taking every risk for. When I’m feeling less charitable toward myself, I think maybe I still pine for him because I’m just lonely. 

Lonely or perhaps frustrated by the lack of physical contact. Perhaps she hears her biological clock ticking more loudly. Obviously, she should not have tried to get back in touch with him. But, what’s a girl to do?

At the least, getting her old life back seems not to be entirely realistic. Her friends have moved on to different life stages. Besides, if her friends’ careers have been damaged, if their children have been hurt by the teachers’ unions… she cannot very well be envying their lives.

We do not know whether her office is reopening. We do not know who will or will not be working from there. As a rule, we think it’s a good idea to go back to the office, but, without prejudice, she is now faced with the unenviable task of reconstructing her everyday habits. She spent the pandemic creating new habits and a new set of life rhythms. In fairness, going back to the past habits is not going to be very easy. It would not be easy for anyone.

And then, things get more difficult. She seems to be possessed of a dour personality. She seems to have something of a Goth side. She loves dark subjects, meditates often about death and suffers mightily from casual everyday interactions:

I was always so envious of people who did things like taco nights and “Friendsgiving,” but the handful of times I was actually invited to those kinds of events in the past, they were pure agony. It was all fluff and no substance. I tend to dwell on dark, heavy subjects. I want to know what you think makes for a good death, and what you feel like the losses in your life add up to, and which social norms are slowly killing you as we speak.

We do not know where she lives, but the internet is chock-a-block with groups that indulge just such propensities. Tara Isabella Burton wrote a book describing how people of a more Goth or pagan sensibility get together to do things that are unfit for a family blog. See her book, Strange Rites. 

If that is not to her taste, religious services and even Bible study groups can provide a full-on exploration of the larger questions, of eschatology and of the anagoge. 

Therapy notwithstanding-- and I am not suggesting that she needs any-- attending regular religious services has been shown to be more beneficial than whining about your feelings to an empathetic slug.

On the other hand, I would recommend that she get out of the fucking house. Socializing does not always involve Friendsgiving-- whatever is that?

How about hanging out in a Starbucks, waltzing through a museum, going to a concert or even a movie. She does not need to interact with the assembled multitudes, but a minimal level of social interaction is better than no interaction at all.

The letter writer concludes plaintively.

I want to ask you what advice you would give me if I were your daughter, but I also want you to know that I don’t need anyone and I’m doing quite well on my own, Thank You Very Much. I want a solid relationship, but I don’t want to disappear into one or become the kind of person who can’t handle things alone. I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life, but so many of those risks were in service of trying to find somewhere that felt warm and safe. I want someone to let me cry to them after a breakup and tell me I’m beautiful and he doesn’t know what he’s missing, but I also just want to be left alone to eat cheese and wallow in my bed. I hate our individualistic society that means we all have to fend for ourselves all the time, but I’m simultaneously so mistrustful of people who’ve never actually been hung out to dry on their own.

Deep thoughts, I would say. Well, not that deep, but what do you expect? Now the problem is actually quite simple. She is a living contradiction in terms. She is, as Kant put it, unsociably social. She wants to be an individual, but that suggests that she does not want to be responsible for any other human being. She is happy to feel responsible for her pets, but presents herself as someone who is disinclined to care for others.

If she marries and has children-- not out of the question, I imagine-- she will discover that she cannot indulge herself as fully as she is now. In truth, this is unrealistic for an adult. It is perfectly realistic for a child. Somehow or other she has recovered her childhood state of perfect self-involvement, yet without the parental units taking care of her.

As it happened, her parents did not much care for her, so she was essentially on her own. Now she has found the kind of affection and companionship she craves, in her pets. At the least, they do not break up via text and do not refuse to return your calls.

As for Polly, a fountain of bad advice, she tells this woman to go out and find meaningful connections. She tells her to seek out people she really likes, which means precisely nothing. 

You need to know that, in spite of not having the most victorious social track record, the pickier you are about friends, the more passionate you’ll be about those connections, and the more honest you’ll end up being with the friends in question.

If she follows this advice, she will end up having nothing.

Without going into too much detail, this all has the air of stale Heidegger. After all, Polly pretends that her column will help people to be in the world, a famous Heideggerean concept. The letter writer thinks that death is the meaning of life-- another concept that she might well have gleaned from the writings of the great Nazi philosopher. And as for avoiding small talk and polite conversation, Heidegger clearly advised as much.

One does not know whether she actually studied this swill in college or whether she just picked it up on her own. If she did, she ought to get over it. And she can do so by becoming a regular at a local Starbucks or attending religious services. Those actions will not require too much of her. They will not intrude on her privacy. And once she becomes something of a fixture, people will reach out to her. It's better than chasing after them.


KCFleming said...

Great piece and keen advice.
Polly sounds like she works for HR.

“ One does not know whether she actually studied this swill in college or whether she just picked it up on her own.”
Maybe Heidegger is just a verbose autist.

RebeccaH said...

She says she's approaching her 30s. She should go to restaurants and observe, as I have, very old people who come in alone, sit alone, eat their meals alone, and then leave to go back to an empty home. They don't look happy to me.

Unknown said...

Without reading more than your post, she seems a fairly normal introvert to me.

Why on Earth would anyone hang out alone in a local Starbucks? or donut shop or tea room? Going somewhere where it is expected one will introduce one's self and mingle, I understand. But why go somewhere public to be alone? It makes no sense to me. Clearly it happens, but I've never understood it.

As for going back to the office, the vast majority of my coworkers are not even located in the same country, which means electronic communication. It seems to work fine for the city-local ones, too. I have no desire to start commuting, again. Socializing among coworkers is somewhat fraught in the best of times. In this "I'm more woke than you are" era, I'd rather not have anything to do with them.

All that said, friends are important - it's just that those are bad places to look for them. "Friendsgiving" is Thanksgiving with friends rather than family; I've been hosting one for decades.

Better advice: Join a group (or five) that you're interested in (knitting, neighborhood association, church group, four-wheelers, whatever...) and attempt to befriend everyone. It doesn't take long to discover the control freaks and mean girls (all groups have them, usually in leadership positions no one else wants). Ignore them. If you don't find anyone you like, drop the group and try another one.