In Defense of Loneliness

We’re currently living through the #solotraveller trend. People today, especially millennials, are choosing more and more frequently to make travel a priority no matter what. The issues and benefits of this phenomena are often spoken about on a socio-economic level but rarely do we speak about one personal consequence of this priority-making.

People who make travel a priority often must make that choice alone. If you are one of the people privileged enough to be able to put your sedentary life down and walk away for any amount of time it’s not especially likely that you have a companion who can do the same. (Of course, this is outside of the niche of #vanlife nomadic couples who seem, to my jealous eyes, to have it all.)

No, by nature of making one thing a priority, other things must fall to the wayside and, for many of us, that means companionship and relationships. It means leaving your family to live their lives and make their memories without you. It means meeting and loving people briefly before they’re gone again and distance separates you in more ways than one.

And so this question appears again and again on message boards for travelers I frequent.

How do you avoid loneliness on the road?

And the short answer is simply, you don’t.

Being alone, especially when you’re not used to being alone, nearly invariably leads to loneliness. Travel exacerbates that tendency because of the intensity of what you’re experiencing and learning. Wouldn’t it all be better if you could share these moments with someone else? But that’s the cost of making travel a priority. You won’t always have a companion.

And that’s okay. I want to go beyond just indicating the unfortunate consequence of your choice to travel. I want to defend loneliness, and aloneness, and what they teach us.

 

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Taken as I traveled (alone) through the Wenshu Monastery Gardens in Chengdu.

 

Loneliness can be crippling. In our worst moments, we can convince ourselves that we’re lonely because we’re unwanted or unloved. Loneliness can lead you down a pit of depression so deep and dark, you’re unable to see or enjoy the world around you. But loneliness is more than that. It’s a vital part of our human experience. Loneliness carves you out deeply but it leaves spaces for you to love and appreciate love just as deeply.

Loneliness teaches us empathy, if we’ll learn it. Being isolated, especially while traveling, puts us in a unique position to experience the world without the sounding board of companionship. When we filter our experience through our loneliness, we’re bound to see humanity in a new and, hopefully, kinder light.

Loneliness is one of the dozens of things that doesn’t kill us; it makes us stronger. Feeling lonely is difficult and painful. But eventually, it does go away. We feel that depth and then things change and we’re not lonely and we’re stronger for it. Eventually, through repeated exposure perhaps, we learn to be alone.

Being alone is similar to loneliness with the added bonus that it doesn’t hurt so damn badly. Being alone can be thrilling and empowering. Perhaps that’s the draw of the Solo Traveler. The implication is that I am brave enough, I am strong enough, smart enough, clever enough, intrepid enough, to see this world all on my own.

Trust me- the first time you tell the story of the time you navigated a brand-new city in a foreign language at 3 AM and all alone to boot and see the amazement on your friends’ faces, you’ll appreciate your abilities.

Eventually, you can come to revel in your aloneness. Being alone and quiet with myself has always been something I enjoyed; especially in contrast with how much I loved being with my friends. For me, it’s always been balance. But traveling alone heightened that through the trial of loneliness. I learned to appreciate the unique perspective and benefits I had as a solo stranger in a strange land.

 

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One practical approach to loneliness while traveling is taking a tour like this Haunted Tour in New Orleans.

 

Traveling alone taught me first that loneliness is there and it’s ok to be lonely, even when you’re chasing your dreams and seeing more of the world than, statistically, has been allotted to you. You can both know what an incredible privilege and miracle it is to experience what you’re experiencing and also be pretty bummed out you’re doing it alone. These two things are not contradictory.

You must learn not to let the guilt of not being totally, completely, Instagram-ready happy 24/7 in you travels push you deeper into your sadness. Learning to push past that loneliness and the joy of knowing yourself, depending on your wits and being accountable for your actions alone is an experience more empowering that any number of leadership retreats I’ve attended.

Be lonely and learn to be alone. Learn to be alone so you can learn to be a better citizen and traveler. Learn to be lonely so you learn to be a better friend and lover and companion. These are vital and important parts of our human experience and nothing we should shy away from if travel is the priority you want to set all on your own.

 

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And when you do find someone to travel with, you’ll appreciate them all the more… no matter who exhausted from climbing straight up a mountain you are. (Taken at Stone Door in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee with my friend Noah.)

 

 

 

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