17 Nov You’ll Never Be Alone

Last night, on the campus of my university, I saw a young woman ahead of me stepping carefully beside the sidewalk and shining a flashlight into the grass. Obviously she had lost something. She had her head turned just-so, as if to get a particular view of the dark grass. I imagined that she was in for a long, tedious search. As I passed, I saw that her head was turned just-so because she was holding a cell phone in the crook of her neck. “Mom, I know where it was,” she was saying. “ I almost remember seeing it.”

I imagined her searching for two or three hours, spending that time chatting to everybody she knows. Okay, her search wouldn’t be so tedious and certainly wouldn’t be lonely. Good for her. Good for cell phone technology. Or maybe not so good, I thought. I couldn’t help feeling that, tethered to her phone, she was missing something. Maybe she wasn’t missing much—one or two hours of silence while she searched—but add those hours to others she might spend alone with her thoughts as they run from her childhood to her present, as they turn over one problem in her life that casts light on another, as they give her opportunities to question who she is and why she does what she does and feels what she feels, add all of those lonely thoughtful moments, those hours of thinking instead of speaking, and what do you have? A very different life, it would seem.

Forgive me my geezerdom, but I worry for the young and their reluctance to be alone. Learning how to be alone is like learning how to speak. It’s that vital. Or maybe it’s like learning how to listen, how to shut up and attend: pay attention, regard the world around you, take it in, make it matter. If we attempt to fill every silence with chatter—the white noise of sociability—then we’ve crowded out quality time with ourselves.

I’m all for sociability. And I’ll grant that those who spend every free moment talking on the phone may become thoroughly sociable, and delightful company, from such practice. But what about sociability with oneself? Is it silly to think that I should be my own best friend or, at least, when alone, a good companion to myself? That doesn’t happen automatically. We have to cultivate ourselves as we might cultivate, say, a neighbor as a friend. That takes time. That takes practice. It amounts to finding ways to occupy ourselves when alone, sharing with ourselves the best we have to offer. Long distance runners know what this means, as do leisure walkers. Those who sit for hours in front of the television may not.

The one thing I never had as a child was an invisible friend. Though I think myself creative, I could not bring myself to create that other self. It felt forced and a little silly whenever I tried. It occurs to me now that I may have been satisfied with the company I already offered myself and so, by inventing an invisible friend, I was crowding myself out. As it was, I spent a lot of time alone and in silence. But here’s the thing about silence: it’s never really silent because it’s filled with imaginings and wide-ranging thoughts and music we create for ourselves. It’s a great, sometimes wild, place to be—our heads—and it dismays me to think that young folk nowadays are choosing to spend more time asking friends “What’s up?” on the phone than hanging out in the back yards of their flowering minds.

Of course, decades hence, they themselves may wax nostalgic about the simple pleasure of spending hours on their phones talking about nothing in particular to this friend or that. And, no doubt, they will shake their heads in dismay as their children zone out for hours via the telepathic implants that allow them to chatter to five friends at once. Did I mention that you should forgive me my geezerdom?