The above quote to the best of my knowledge comes from Wayne Dyer, whose book Your Erroneous Zones is widely considered one of the best self-help books of all time.
And last year on my first birthday celebrated in New Zealand, I went to see him. He was a guy I’d admired for 20 years, and now he was coming to our little island. On my birthday no less! Rather than going to a bar or buying something new, I decided to spend 100 bucks on a ticket. It seemed like a good way to start a new year.
And he was magical! He talked about the universe, personal responsibility, and happiness and travel and a lot of other things that I had been so attuned to in my younger and more passionate years. And you know what? I left that auditorium feeling a hundred feet tall. It was a wonderful reminder of a number of things I’d forgotten, and I vowed to start this new year of my life with a new sense of vigor.
Two days later Wayne Dyer was dead.
I really couldn't believe it. He seemed so full of life and passion and enthusiasm!
And yet I was at the last talk he would ever give.
And so I think there’s a kind of responsibility that comes from that. I too have taken the responsibility of trying to guide others in my life, although I’m certainly no Wayne Dyer. And in keeping with this spirit, I thought about the one sentence that continued (and continues) to ring in my head from that fateful night.
You can’t be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.
I thought about this at it pertains to my own sometimes lonely life. I thought about my patients and their struggle for self-acceptance in the face of rejection and change.
You can’t be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with. God that sounds good.
So what does it mean?
I’ve thought a lot about this. Because let’s face it, 99% of this life takes place in our own heads. So many of our victories, defeats, fears, triumphs and tragedies are interpretations about things we process in our own grey matter.
So how do we learn to live with being alone? And not just live with being alone, but to be really okay with it. Perhaps even embrace it. What is the secret to that?
I think we learn to avoid being alone at a very young age. It’s how we punish children for God’s sake. Being sent to time out. Or even worse alone to your room. The ultimate insult to a child. Go be with yourself for a while.
And while we all have a natural inclination towards a sense of belonging, there are times we perhaps crave this a bit too much. Try taking a phone away from a teenager for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. A whole generation of kids are growing up with a fear of missing out. That one hour without their phone will certainly be the death of their social existence. Many really believe that.
And I think this pattern sticks. The archetypes about “the outsider” and “the loner” usually paint them as eccentric and strange and unwilling to conform to the normal rules about things.
And yet. There have been some beautiful things written about being alone as well. Thoreau retired to the woods to live, writing “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Schopenhauer said, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”
So how do we make sense of this discrepancy? This strange avoidance of being alone versus these great minds extolling the benefits of solitude?
In the end, I think like most things it comes down to relationships. From my experience seeing people on all sides of the romantic continuum, when we aren’t okay with ourselves, we’re not going to be okay with someone else. When the student is ready the teacher appears. We need to learn to be okay with ourselves as opposed to borrowing and trying on the identities of others. That’s co-dependence, and it leads to a loss of our own identity in the service of supporting someone else’s.
In aid of this idea, I think it’s healthy for all of us to have a little time to get to know ourselves a little better. To sit with being alone and listen to our own intuition and hearts for a while. Sometimes this makes us suspect. But so what? Elizabeth Gilbert says it wonderfully in her book Eat Pray Love, “When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person's body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”
It’s wonderful advice.
And in memory of Wayne Dyer I’m going on a hike this weekend. Nothing fancy. Just a little trip to the beach to read, and think (and okay maybe some wine), and come down a little from a week spent talking to people all day every day.
And yes, I’ll be on my own.
But I’m learning to enjoy the company…