Alone Together

For a long time I have understood the awkward feeling of being alone in a crowd of people, and I think it is worthwhile to ponder this.  Most of the the time I wonder about this phenomenon I am thinking about driving.  I have never really viewed driving as something that I enjoyed for its own sake [1].  I have reason to drive relatively often because I live a fairly busy life and so must get from point A to B to C, usually planned in some kind of sequential order to be done as quickly as is possible to do safely for myself and others.  Since I do not like my time driving to be wasted, I tend to listen to Great Courses or audiobooks on a continual basis while driving, or failing that I listen to cds I happen to enjoy listening to.  While I realize that not everyone who is driving has the intense degree of claustrophobia that I do or finds traffic as distressing as I do, driving is the quintessential activity of being in a lonely crowd.

And why is that?  Well, usually when you drive in urban areas you are among a large group of people.  Traffic will slow down at key chokepoints like bridges and tunnels and interchanges, people will be forgetful about which lane they are supposed to be in or trying to get ahead of traffic intentionally so there will be a lot of jostling about for position around merged lanes or exit only lanes where someone belatedly realizes that they do not want to be.  Some people enjoy the sights or are in a trance or are so distracted by what is weighing on their mind that they are simply not aware that other people simply want to go and that they are in the way.  We have a situation that seems to be tailor-made for intense frustration–stiff resource limits in terms of lane space, a low degree of communication, and a lot of ways the activity can go wrong.  As a result, it is entirely unsurprising that driving is not a fun activity if you are not inclined to enjoy it and enjoy it less when you are surrounded by other people who are also doing it.  Those of us who have a tendency towards misanthropy do not often find living in the city to be particularly enjoyable when it comes to the need to travel.

The same factors that make being in a lonely crowd on the road are present in other aspects of life.  For a variety of reasons, transportation in general, especially for the solitary soul like myself, is a fairly lonely experience.  You drive alone in your car, listening to something that is usually interesting but does not involve communication.  You sit and eat alone, usually reading a book in my case, with only minimal interactions concerning the food you are ordering or how much gas you want in your car if you stop in Oregon (fill regular).  If you fly, you will likely be reading or engaged in some kind of work on the computer or will be watching an in flight movie or listening to music, and most people, I have found, are not particularly friendly on airplanes beyond polite civilities.  By and large there appears to be a shared commitment to the idea that one is stuck around strangers that one is not particularly interested in and one simply wants to get through the experience with as little interaction as possible.  In general, I find transportation as a whole to be that sort of activity of people who may be together for a few hours but where there is no interest in getting to know them at all as people.

Any activity where we are around a lot of people, especially where we are in close proximity with them, but are either unable or uninterested in engaging with them as people, is going to be a place where one is in a lonely crowd.  Traveling on public transportation, one may simply want to be left alone, especially if one feels one’s fellow travelers to be at least potentially unsafe.  Sitting in a stadium we may cheer on a friendly team, but if we are surrounded by people cheering for the other team, we are not likely going to be as interested in being friendly.  We may go to the gym and find many people there but simply want to use a particular machine or do a particularly exercise and may not know or care about the other people we encounter there.  We may go to libraries or go grocery shopping and never interact with people at all the entire time as we pick up books we have put on hold and check them out ourselves, or buy groceries by habit, dodging and weaving irritably around the people parked in the aisle where our beloved ramen soup is located, and then use the self-checkout line, never talking to a person the entire time.

And on and on it goes.  We can live our lives nearly surrounded by people while always remaining alone.  It is not physical distance that makes us alone, or lonely, but rather emotional distance.  People can go to remote mountaintops above the timberline and feel in communion with God, and the most remote places can be the source of mystical experiences that connect us with the Creator and His creation.  We can be separated by thousands of miles from those we love and those who love us, but if we are fortunate, we may feel their love and hope that they too feel ours even from so far away.  Yet all too often that is not the case.  We may flee the induced closeness of cities or suburbs by fleeing further and further into remote country, only to find ourselves deeply isolated.  Some people may not even mind that isolation, but may positively crave having enough space where no one else’s existence or concerns need enter into their thinking and into their manner of living.  Forcing people to sit next to each other for a few hours, or sticking dozens or even hundreds and thousands of people in close proximity in apartments and condos and townhouses and dormitories does not make those people into a community.  We can marry people and be together alone for decades without meaningful communication and a sense of genuine intimacy.  At its core, the only way we stop being alone is emotionally, and it is far too easy to put up physical walls between ourselves and others to mirror our emotional walls, and to seek wide open spaces to separate ourselves in geography as we are already separated in our own hearts and minds from those we may recognize but do not wish to be close to any longer than it takes for us to get away from the places that force us despite our inclinations to be around each other in the first place.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Alone Together

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Rent Veil | Edge Induced Cohesion

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