The Gift of Loneliness – Lisa Miller December 2017


It is time, finally, to tell the story of “The Bag of Shame.” This happened long ago, when I was very single, living alone, and dreading Christmas. Anxiety for me is a baseline state, but the prospect of Christmas used to induce a special panic — an apprehension of extreme loneliness — together with an impulse to alleviate it. That year, a man I had been dating — or, rather, sleeping with from time-to-time — invited me to accompany him on a ski vacation for the holiday week. It was a surprising invitation. We saw each other only occasionally, and strictly on a booty-call basis. He was amusing, but no one with what I would have called Long Term Potential. We were not close. I had not met his family, nor he mine. Nevertheless, as a single person, a Jewish person with zero Christmas heritage, and a person easily irritated by the suffocating requirements of seasonal cheer, it seemed like an okay alternative to what I had planned — which was nothing. I said yes. When I told my friend S, she — who knew Booty Call Man — asked me what I was thinking.

“It’s something to do,” I answered, trying to sound flippant, like an adventuress.

“You could go to the movies,” she said, a phrase that has resonated down the ages. Even now, whenever I am on the brink of a decision that may cost me, in time or money or self-respect, I pose the hypothetical to myself: Would it be better to go to the movies right now?

I tell the story of “The Bag of Shame” now as a gift to my younger, single friends who live alone. Nothing makes a single person feel more single, and more anxious, and more anxious about being single, than a holiday that perpetuates a whole lot of myths about family togetherness at a moment when togetherness is not an option. For more than a decade, starting in my later 20s, I lived alone, and during that time was more or less constantly worried that my single status would be never-ending, and worse: that it signaled some kind of factory defect in me. In my world at the time, the existential question of aloneness was a constant preoccupation — for me, for my friends, for my mother (especially) — its drumbeat accompanying all our activities and conversation, like the hum of an old refrigerator in a small apartment.

And that was then. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, the number of people under 35 who are “un-partnered” has risen to 61 percent from 56 percent over the past decade. Aloneness and loneliness are not the same thing, but one begets the other: the former U.S. Surgeon General has called loneliness the public health crisis of our time. And the experience of loneliness today is qualitatively different from when I was young. Back then, the universe I inhabited was prosperous, stable: the corporation I worked for matched my 401K. Today, millennials’ solitude exists against a backdrop of massive political and environmental and financial disruptions that can be accessed through Twitter at any time of day. Their anxiety may be neurotic, in other words, but at the same time it’s understandable, even rational.

Booty Call Man and I had an awkward time out West. We had previously spent a fair amount of time in bars, but never face-to-face at a restaurant with cloth napkins in our laps and never, certainly, navigating the intrinsic awkwardness of a hotel room. Plus, I’m not much of a skier, and we had to negotiate that should-we-ski-together-or-separately dynamic, but without any of the goodwill or history that real couples have. Our sojourn was a performance of coupledom begotten by a mutual fear of seasonal loneliness, and so it was also sad. Still, compared to a long weekend inventing “projects” in my apartment, I might have preferred it, if it hadn’t ended how it did.

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