On Living Alone
Providing you’re not in a state of longing, living in solitude can be its own powerful pleasure. Philip Roth
The trend is striking. The numbers speak clearly. According to Eric Klinenberg in his recent article in the Times, more people live alone now than at any previous time in history. In 1950 22% of American adults were single; today, it is almost 50%.
It is the same in some European countries—Sweden, 47%; Norway, 40%. In Germany, Netherlands, Britain and France, the percentage of households with only one occupant ranges from 34% to 39%. In every country cited in the numerous charts and tables in the article, the percent of adults who live alone increases with age.
Consider this graph of the metropolitan areas of this country:
No less striking is the Klinenberg’s claim about the social effects of solo life. It is widely believed that living alone gives rise to social isolation, loneliness and sense of alienation. After interviewing over 300 individuals, Klinenberg concludes that living alone encourages more, not less social interaction.
He cites data that single people are more likely than married couples “to spend time with friends and neighbors, go to restaurants and attend art classes and lectures.” He refers to a paper in the American Sociological Review that “showed that single seniors had the same number of friends and core discussion partners as their married peers and were more likely to socialize with friends and neighbors.”
Rilke wrote: “Embrace your solitude and love it…It is through this aloneness that you will find all your paths.”
Although I have a long and happy marriage, I have lived alone for many periods of my life. In many respects, I find it a congenial and refreshing change. My days are more my own, I can work longer periods and with less distraction than when I’m with my wife. There’s more time for ruminating, trying out new ideas, wasting time in a bookstore or library.
Yes, I go through periods of loneliness but they are short and disappear quickly as the “powerful pleasures” of solitude begin to take hold of me. In her book Fifty Days of Solitude, Doris Grumbach described this feeling:
“At first I found I missed another voice, not so much a voice responsive to my unexpressed thoughts as an independent one speaking its own words….There was a reward for this deprivation. The absence of other voices compelled me to listen more intently to the inner one. I became aware that the interior voice, so often before stifled or stilled entirely by what I thought others wanted to hear, or what I considered to be socially acceptable, grew gratifyingly louder, more insistent. It was not that it spoke great truths or made important observation. No. It simply reminded me that it was present, saying what I had not heard it say in quite this way before….What we yearned for were periods of solitude to renew our worn spirits.”
Like a teeter-totter, we oscillate back and forth between seeking solitude and, when that gives rises to a certain discontent, longing for companionship once again. It is often difficult to find a level center, one where independence and attachment are in balance. Eventually we yearn for solitude and then, in turn, for togetherness--the never-ending swaying of the teeter-totter.
I think I must be really weird to enjoy these periods of solitude so much. I used to wonder how many others would welcome an experience like this, at least how many other men? Now I am aware, how many others, both men and women, have come to prefer living along.
I often recall a passage in Martha Cooley’s The Archivist: “He set out to find…the source of beauty and elegance…something you do by yourself. Not with other people. Other people muddy the waters.”