The Art of Being Alone
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
During my freshman year of college, I had an English professor who challenged us to not use our cell phones for an entire day, and then write about our experience. At the time, I remember thinking it was silly, but had always been a dutiful student, so I turned off my phone then headed home for the weekend to visit my family.
I remember sitting cross legged on the floor, playing Trouble with my younger sister, sans phone. Every couple of minutes when it wasn't my turn, I found myself absentmindedly reached out with my right hand, and swooping the carpet for my phone, then coming up with only space between my fingers. I was in a complete habit of checking my phone during any moment that I was not actively engaged and was fully dependent on this little computer that was supposed to be a tool for communication, relying on it to think for me. Was I incapable of spending time 1:1 with another human without the protective barrier of my phone, or could I handle my brain not being distracted for twenty seconds? I wrote about this for my class, and we discussed our experiences the next time we met. This lead to my professor's next challenge, which was to try to be alone for three hours. And by alone, he meant - again, without your phone. "Even if you are without physical company," he explained, "Using social media or texting is still a way that you are connecting with someone. Try to spend some time absolutely disconnected and think about how you feel."
And I will admit, as a 19 year old, this was terrifying. In fact, through the rest of my time in college, I struggled with isolating myself completely. Yes, my FOMO was strong, and I have always thrived off of spending time with others, but I was mostly scared of getting to know myself better. Any sort of intimacy I had with my own brain was surface level at best, and I was wary of what I would discover if left to my own thoughts and habits without being influenced by others. And truly, the art of being alone took me years to cultivate until I saw its value, and its sanctuary.
Now, time alone is precious, and something that will continue to be a rarity. Most days, I spend 8+ hours in an office surrounded by people every second. Our restrooms are public and shared with other businesses in our building, so I almost always retreat to somewhere that should be private, and am met by a handful of strangers. I don't think this is what Jamie Lee Curtis' famous "Privacy is a privilege, Anna" line was insinuating in Freaky Friday, but when I want nothing more than one minute alone during a chaotic week, I think of how special it can be to escape into silence.
And in those moments of quiet, mostly when I am lucky to steal them away in my home, come spurts of creativity, or feelings of absolute freedom. I was talking with two other friends in their mid twenties a few days ago, who all agreed that we would be happier without cell phones. I feel my sanity slipping away as the obligation to be available 24/7 presses on my chest. But it is perfectly fine to tell your family, and your boss, that you cannot be reached at all hours. As we become more connected, I think the need for alone time, and becoming reacquainted with our own minds, is increasingly necessary.
On this lovely afternoon, I am experiencing the first day that I have open without work or obligations in weeks. And I am savoring it, with my phone across the room. This time, I am giving myself the assignment, without any hesitation. What will I notice if I disconnect?