When I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with wolves. “Wolves can eat up to 20 pounds of raw meat in one sitting,” I would announce, to no one in particular. “Wolves are the largest canines in the world.”
I spent a lot of time reading—whenever I took a break from ZooBooks to learn about wolves, I almost always read fiction, painting grand tableaus of faraway places and their inhabitants in my mind. I wrote, too—science fiction epics that crossed the boundaries of space and time, alternately impressing and horrifying my teachers with the elaborate obstacles I forced upon my characters. I had, in short, “a rich inner life,” which I later learned is a polite way of saying “someone who spends too much time inside her own head.”
I wasn’t a loner, necessarily. I was good at talking to people. Growing up, I had friends and boyfriends. In my late teens, I moved to New York City and made more friends, had more boyfriends, and developed a web of social and professional ties that have, over the years, netted into a rich life.
Still, I spend a lot of uninterrupted time with me, myself, and I. I live alone. I run a small business and often work alone, sequestered in my home office. I travel alone for both work and pleasure, to remote areas where I sometimes go days without talking to another human. I am romantically unattached, which seems for many to be a sure catalyst for loneliness. But not for me.
I rarely feel lonely. In fact, I almost never do. But I’m not bragging about it—it worries me.
Everywhere I look, the pressure of loneliness surrounds me. Countless songs, books, and works of art that I willingly consume are direct results of their creators being lonely. My friends and loved ones speak of the sensation often; how it shapes their days and dreams and actions. A few months ago, as a dinner party I attended was winding down, the other guests took turns fantasizing about what they wanted from a hypothetical partner. Tipsy and loosened up, they were honest about their hopes that this other person could alleviate some of their day-to-day loneliness. Every one of them. When it came time for me to describe my ideal mate, I could barely play along. My mind was simply blank.
So I can’t help but think: What’s wrong with me that I’m not lonely?
I know I have experienced loneliness in my life—after I moved to New York and feared I’d made a mistake by being here, and again after a protracted breakup with a person who consumed all of my love and left me gasping for air—but it’s been years since that blank white sensation has enveloped me, and I’m worried it speaks to some kind of larger moral failing on my part.
It’s tough to pinpoint how I got here. My little sister was very sick when we were children, and my parents spent months in the hospital with her. I only remember bits and pieces, but the whole episode must have had a lasting effect on the way in which I express my emotions (or don’t). I learned to hold my feelings close to my chest.
I remember feeling exposed on a Grand Canyon vacation when my father implored me to express appropriate impressions of awe. I said nothing, just nodded, though indeed I was moved by the epic landscape around us. To this day, I often feel like there’s a barrier between my brain and my mouth: I feel things so intensely that I sometimes bow under their weight and teeter on the brink of emotional collapse, but you’d never know it from my Teflon shell.
These are my issues, and mine to resolve, but I get whiplash from the mixed messages my world sends out: On the one hand, independence is seen as a virtue. All hail the single ladies! We aspire to take care of ourselves, to be emotionally and financially autonomous, and yet, we’re also defensive about being alone. We write things to justify and exoticize our behavior, straining to prove that we are indeed okay for wanting true independence. So I don’t know if I should be proud of myself for the life I’ve built or concerned that I don’t feel there’s anything lacking.
Here’s another fact about wolves, and one that scientists discovered just a few years ago: Wolves howl out of loneliness. The prevailing wisdom prior to this had been that those woeful howls were merely instinctual, but it appears that they in fact occur more often when the animals are separated and in distress.
So, turns out lone wolves are just trying to get back to their packs, after all. As for me, maybe it’s time to let my guard down and try to find mine.