THOUGHT OF THE DAY: IN DEFENSE OF LONELINESS…
Dear Ones —
So the other day, I posted an interview I did with Mother Jones magazine, in which I said that it's really important for people (for women, especially) to learn how to be lonely.
(The interview is here, by the way, if you want to see it: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2013/09/interview-elizabeth-gilbert-eat-pray-love-signature-all-things)
I wanted to expand just a bit on that idea, especially in light of a conversation I had this week with a gorgeous, heartbroken 28 year-old woman who was doing my hair. I'd never met this girl before, but we started talking, the way you do with perfect strangers, about love and loss. (Is there any other topic in a hair salon?) She told me that she'd just left her boyfriend of four years because she'd finally had it with him — had it with not being treated as something precious. She said, "I gotta go out there right now and get myself somebody BETTER."
I found myself taking her hand (this woman I'd never met before) and saying with the utmost urgency, "But will you promise me first to spend at least six months alone? Will you work your way through this heartbreak before you go replacing anybody? Will you promise to commit to at least six celibate months before you throw yourself at another guy? Will you absolutely swear to it?"
She seemed puzzled, then worried. She said, "But I get so bored and lonely by myself. Watching TV alone at night? I can't think of anything worse."
I said, "I can. I can think of a LOT of things worse. Like, for instance, this time next month you're already in another relationship with a guy who doesn't treat you like somebody precious. And you put up with his shit just because you can't bear your own company."
Then I told her my theory about how one of the most important things we need to learn in life is HOW TO BE LONELY. We need to learn how to sit through the initial discomfort and panic of loneliness, so we can get to the other side and realize that it didn't kill us. I met a woman in her 50s recently who told me that she won't leave her abusive husband because "I never want to have to walk into a party or a restaurant alone."
Friends, at some point, we all have to learn how to walk into a party or a restaurant alone. Otherwise, we will be willing to walk in with ANYBODY (or worse, walk out with anybody.) We have to learn how to endure our own company and hold our heads high. And sometimes, after enough time alone, we can even learn to enjoy ourselves. And best of all, after enough time and practice, we can sometimes even learn to revere ourselves.
I did not learn this lesson for many, many years. I never let myself be alone for five minutes. I just traded one partner for another, because I could not bear an empty space beside me. Which meant that I was never CHOOSING who to be with; I was just filling in an empty seat, an empty bed, an empty self.
I remember when I was traveling alone during the Eat Pray Love journey and I crossed this threshold where suddenly I realized, "I am going to treat myself like I am my own amazing boyfriend. I'm going to be SO GOOD to me. I'm going to take me to the most beautiful places. I'm going to say the most comforting words to myself. I'm going ask me every day, 'What do you need, dear one? What can I do for you?'" And we ended up having an amazing time together — me and me.
Such that, when I finally met the man who treated me exactly as well and as tenderly as I had been treating myself, my heart recognized him and said: THIS IS GOOD. My heart said: THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE GROWN USED TO. Had I not spent that year (more, actually) alone and practiced self-care, my heart might never have seen it, might never have noticed him, might never have learned what it means to be treated well. But once you learn what is good, you settle for nothing less.
So six months, I made that girl promise. At LEAST six months alone, I made her swear. We shook on it. And it was sort of comic — here I was, a perfect stranger, and she was agreeing to my demand that she commit to celibacy for half a year…AT LEAST half a year. But that's, I believe, what even she knew she needed. To be lonely until it didn't scare her anymore. Until she wasn't just stapling herself to the next warm body that came along.
For those out there who have been alone for years, of course, and who fear the opposite (intimacy; risk) this advice probably does not stand or have any meaning. But for those of you who are like I used to be, or who are like this sweet hairdresser — rushing to fill the empty space with ANYTHING or ANYONE…well, give it a thought.
Don't be afraid of yourself, OK? Sit through the lonely until you get to the good.