Do you feel ill at ease going alone to either dinner or a movie? What about going on a vacation by yourself?
--The Book of Questions, #77
The first time I read this question, it puzzled me. Why on earth would anyone feel awkward going to dinner alone? Ya gotta eat, after all. But I've since realized that some people hate to be alone under any circumstances. Even more people can't take being alone in certain situations -- at the movies, in a restaurant, on vacation, and in other situations where one might reasonably be expected to bring a friend or a date. And at least some of my friends have an intense need to be around and to interact with other people, drinking in such experiences like the water of life.
Me, I like to do things by myself. In fact, if I don't get at least a small amount of alone time every day, I start to lose it. Being around other people all the time wears me out, and I need to retreat to a private place to recharge. Maybe it's because I'm inherently shy and have a bit of social anxiety -- the fear of saying or doing something stupid in public -- especially around strangers or casual acquaintances. It must have started in childhood, when I spent a lot of time alone, reading and making up stories. It developed in grade school and junior high as I dealt with frequent bullying and abuse. And it had probably become a habit by my early twenties, when I was single, living and working in the East Bay Area, and spending a good amount of my free time alone or with family members.
I like to do some things alone because, in my head, companionship has come to equal compromise. I have a natural eagerness to please and a sense of anxiety to make sure the experience goes well, so if I have an acquaintance with me I tend to put aside what I want or need and focus on making the other person happy. I'll jettison my own preferences in favor of what that other person wants. That's why I often prefer to eat alone -- I have the luxury of choosing exactly what restaurant I want to try, deciding what really sounds good on the menu, or opting to stay home and whip something up in my own kitchen, and I don't have to worry about holding up my end of the conversation with clever mental tap-dancing for somebody else's benefit. It's also why I prefer to run errands alone, so that I can cross things off my to-do list without being drawn into someone else's endless agenda.
There is a short story by Ray Bradbury called "The Martian," in which the titular character is an alien being who shapes himself to the thoughts and memories of others to become the person who is desired the most by his human companions. Far from being dangerous, the Martian seems to be helplessly drawn to become what his hosts want him to be -- in order to be happy, loved, and accepted -- but he hates and shuns crowds. At the beginning of the story, he becomes the beloved dead son of two settlers from Earth. When he is taken into town, he becomes the long-lost daughter of another family. Everyone who sees him wants him to be someone or something else. As the crowds surround him to lay hands on him, he helplessly shifts into one person after another, until the strain of rapidly becoming what others want him to be eventually overtaxes his mind and body and destroys him. I think I understand what Bradbury is trying to say, and it has very little to do with science fiction.
Putting aside your own wants for the sake of another isn't categorically bad -- in fact, most of the great men and women of history have led lives of selfless service -- but I think it has to be accomplished in a context of deep personal integrity. Otherwise, deferring to others consistently over time becomes incredibly wearing on the spirit. It's possible to reach a point where you've been so busy trying to make others happy that you no longer remember what truly pleases you. Furthermore, if people get used to your caving to their wishes all the time, on the rare occasion when you show some spine and stand up for yourself, they tend to respond with bewilderment and anger. (Who does that doormat think she is, anyway?)
Because of my personality type, I think it's important to schedule some regular time alone, when I can do what I like without taking other people and their preferences into account. I know it sounds selfish, but it really isn't; in my case at least, this time is well invested because it recharges my batteries and tends to make me a healthier, happier, less resentful, more relaxed person. And I think that's better for everybody.
What about you? Do you prefer to be alone, or with other people? What charges you up, and what wears you out?