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March 26, 2015

I, Me, Myself and No One Else

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh. Painting by Rahul Das

In the chaotic social babble, we may have lost the ability to hear our inner voice. Verve ruminates on what it means for women to be alone today

‘I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person.’ Famous words by Oscar Wilde. But do they stand true today? On the one hand, women are willing to be alone and not be defined by a man or a friend or a family. And yet, as a society we remain dependent on other people – the human race is driven by relationships.

In an issue devoted to exploring the ‘I’ in a relationship, do we sing soulfully about ‘me’ time, or is it a beacon call of a lonely heart? A happily married lady of nearly 60, asks, “Should I have, all these years, loved myself more than my husband?” And the regretful answer may have been ‘Yes’. As we celebrate ourselves, we are looking to find our identity and space, collect our thoughts and be who we want to be (or do what we would like to do), without interference, judgement or questioning.

In our race to please everyone, we may have begun forgetting what it is that we want. And driven by peer and social pressures, the very way in which we define ourselves has changed.

Women On Their Own
Some would believe that being alone is a gift of liberty, without having to depend on or account to anyone. For many others, it’s a lifestyle shift, a dramatic change in thinking, emotionally and physically. With the growth of meditation camps, single-person travel tours and no-companion-required activities, we foster a sense of metropolitan independence.

There are many women who do things on their own, in order to ‘find themselves’ or to meet new people. Does that make them social pariahs? With employers like Google – willing to foot the bill for their female employees to freeze their eggs, so that they are not pressured by nature to find a companion – we find the road for ‘aloneness’ made easier. The biological clock doesn’t need to tick in a foreboding manner any more; women can be free of the pressure to settle.

And yet it does not fall that we would like to be alone. Women have begun celebrating their personal time; but are women embracing an involved relationship with themselves? For instance, do women feel comfortable eating a meal by themselves, or watching a film in the cinema on their own?  Perhaps the decision is linked to safety – we feel more secure being with someone, we feel protected.

Maybe we feel the need to establish to society that we are not alone. And in that lies the insecurity where we draw our self-worth from another being. The very fact that someone would choose to be with us makes us worthy. We are always seeking approval; we don’t have to deal with the ‘shame’ of being seen without another person.

Isolation Is Punishment
The primeval need to be a part of a community or have a companion – the reason why humans created societies – is so genetically deep rooted, that we are uncomfortable in isolation. After all, one of the rigorous imprisonment tools is solitary confinement. The inability to make conversation and share thoughts is considered a punishment. It is as if we are afraid of being alone with our own thoughts and feelings. What would we do without the people around us distracting us from ourselves? The claustrophobia of solitary confinement leads to the desperate need of togetherness.

Can Indians Do It?
As a society (and with the risk of generalising) Indians are more likely to be uncomfortable doing things like eating, going to a bar or watching a movie alone in their home city, unless they are travelling or living away from home. This draws from the fact that Indians believe in community life and an outing as a family or group. No one plans to step out alone – if they are alone, they stay home. Going out is intrinsically linked to socialising. They may find it easy enough to stay in on a Friday or Saturday night; while in the West, culturally among the single lot, it is considered uncool to be home alone on nights reserved for hanging out or partying. You angle for a date – as the Saturday-night culture portends that you ‘be there or be square.’ It is not unlikely for single women to be out at a bar abroad, or women willing to pick up a date just to go out, while that is not the norm in India. Locally, women – unless they have company – will most likely stay back rather than be seen alone outside, due to social taboos based the perceptions of how ‘good’ women should behave.

Are We Ever Really Alone?
Keeping aside social conventions, at one time, it might have been considered boring to hang out alone. Today, it has come to pass that we are really never alone when we have our smart phone with us. In a world full of gadgets that speak to us, engage us, challenge us and constantly supply us with information, we may find the communication of another person not required or even worse – not sufficient.

The physical distance between two people in conversation through social media provides security and anonymity to be yourself and push the limits more than you could have when meeting someone face-to-face. Will that change the next generation’s ability to ‘face’ people?

And yet, in an alternative study to technology creating social misfits, Australian researcher David Clark suggests, ‘People become less dependent on their families and need more specialised skills, which could lead to less interest in social support and more self-sufficiency. Over time, people are more individualistic, more extroverted, and have higher self-esteem.’

What Is Fulfilling?
We begin to compartmentalise our lives into time spent with people and time spent alone. Which is more valuable? A woman in her 30s, recently married (and potentially commitment-phobic), believes that it is possible to go an entire life, with a good job and international sojourns, without the need of a man. (Not counting casual sex and friends-with-benefits.)

But independent nights or weekends are a world apart from choosing to live and be alone. When you take a few nights off, you do so with the security that you have someone to come back to. That someone is a willing companion to the things you may want to explore and do. Without that security, are we lost and flailing or are we more aggressively ourselves?

We have yearned for a companion with whom we can be ourselves. But today, in a world of compromise, it may be easier to be yourself with yourself rather than change your personality to match someone else’s! Is a relationship with someone too much work?

The Fight Against Silence
While more people are comfortable being alone, because of the connectedness they feel at any point of time with their gadgets; they are automatically uncomfortable in silence. At a party, theatre, restaurant, even waiting for the lift, people find themselves whipping out their phones and ‘listening in’, ‘liking’, ‘sharing’ and ‘commenting’. They are uncomfortable with idle time or stillness. They must reach out to someone, somewhere or do something. The virtual world provides us sound and distraction at every turn. And we find ourselves choosing that distraction, because our uncontrolled thoughts quickly tap into a world of loneliness and insecurity. Do our cultural connections allow us the freedom to remain alone?

The Fine Line    
For society to grudgingly consent that it is acceptable to be alone, it may become easier for people to take their time over choosing – or never choosing – a companion. Traditional relationships may move over to long-term friendships and multiple relationships. It is likely to create a lower threshold for tolerance – we don’t need to work on a relationship or a compromise if we can be happy alone. It is the fine line between finding yourself and moving beyond self-centeredness. A line that we must tread carefully, so that we may retain a strong sense of self, with the empathy, understanding and a desire to create a society of amiable coexistence.

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