The Solitude Bargain
I grew up surrounded by benign neglect. For as long as I can remember, even as a very small child of five or so, Mom and Dad didn’t smother me with attention. Most of the time, I was left to my own devices and allowed a remarkable amount of freedom. When I wasn’t obligated to school or chores I could do pretty much anything and go pretty much anywhere I wanted. Be home by dinner or dark, whichever came first, was my mandate. And don’t get into trouble.
I took full advantage. I used to take long hikes in deep woods, and later, in Colorado, up the slopes of Pikes Peak. I had no fear of getting lost, and I never did. I had no fear of wild animals, and never encountered any scary ones. I never felt lonely…loved the solitude. I’d just go…gone all day, and back before dinner or dark. Whichever came first.
I also enjoyed my time with friends, playing vacant lot baseball with no gloves and a ratty old ball, roller skating or biking around the neighborhood, building forts out of old boxes and whatever flotsam we could find, shooting marbles in the schoolyard, or doing whatever our fertile young imaginations could gin up. But I still had that loner streak…more than happy to be off on my own, alone.
On those few occasions when I got myself into trouble, Dad’s old leather belt across my backside rendered swift and memorable justice. Swift and memorable, but also fair, and I knew it at the time. I brought it on myself. Lesson learned.
Ours wasn’t a cold, impersonal household. Mom and Dad had a sense of humor, and so did I. We could laugh together, and we did—often. To me, my family seemed pretty normal, and I think of my childhood as a good one.
That was the yin and yang of my childhood—fun with friends and the solitude of a loner, in equal measure, and parents who were a combination of loving and remote.
Later, in my adult life, wherever I went, I gravitated toward jobs that had little or no supervision, and maximum degrees of freedom—jobs that I could do independently. I got used to it. In some unconscious way, I probably created it. I liked it that way, and still do. It suits me.
Belonging isn’t a big goal of mine. I’m not really a loner, but I’m also not a joiner. I have fun in groups, but I also have fun alone. Being left out of a desirable group holds no distress for me. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing anything and it doesn’t make me feel excluded.
My younger daughter said to me years ago, “Dad, you don’t get lonely, do you.” It was a statement, not a question. She told me that she and her sister used to feel sorry for me because I was pretty solitary, and must therefore have been lonely. But it became clear to them that I was not to be pitied because loneliness wasn’t part of my makeup. I wasn’t a hermit, and I enjoyed the company of friends. But extended solitude was just as welcome as fun with friends…still is.
Why am I telling you all these personal things, especially in such a public forum? I bet there are others out there who are like me in this way, and who might seem a bit “cold” now and then without meaning to. I think it would be useful to them—as it is to me—to understand that about themselves, and the impact it can have on others. Maybe a little bit of awareness will help them do a better job of letting the ones they love and respect know that they love and respect them.
I also want people unlike me—perhaps you?—to know that I, and others of my kind, like and respect and even love you more than we let on. We should express it more clearly and more often—yes, of course we should—but for whatever reason, we’re just not wired that way. Sometimes the loner streak takes over, and we seem like we don’t care as much as we actually do. I hope you can cut us some slack about that.
My bargain with solitude—my loner tendencies—took shape without conscious intent on my part. I just grew into them, beginning in those early days in the woods and hiking up Pikes Peak. I like people. I also like solitude and independence. Sometimes the two don’t mesh very well, and, without being aware of it, and especially in times of stress, I let myself become distant and restrained with those I like and love. If you’re one of them, please know that I love and respect you, even though I don’t always express it very well. I’m trying to do better.
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