Last week, I went to have a sunset drink at one of my favorite spots in Berlin, the Klunkerkranich rooftop. As I walked around to find a spot to sit among the crowd, I was surprised to see an art installation that wasn’t there the week before – a bunch of envelopes hanging from strings, forming a little hut, inside which a woman was sitting.
Curious, I walked up to her. She started to talk to me in English, but I noticed her Spanish accent. “Hablas español?” I asked. “Siiii” she answered, relieved – “So glad you do too, so I can express myself better”.
It turns out every envelope hanging there had an intimate secret inside, written by someone who, somewhere, ran into Maria, just like me.
“You can read one if you also write one”, she told me.
You’ll have to find her and do the same if you ever want to find out what I wrote. What I want to tell you about is what I read.
Each envelope had written on the outside the language in which the secret was written. I chose one that said Español, maybe because it is the language in which I feel I sound the warmest and most emotional.
I opened it and, in a blue, female calligraphy was written:
“I am afraid of being alone. But I don’t like being around too many people either… and I look around and wonder if anyone else feels the same way”.
I couldn’t help but smile at how connected the Universe is. That could have been written by me a few months ago and, since I moved to Berlin, I had been planning to write about how I finally started to enjoy being on my own.
I have no idea who wrote it – I only know she is a girl, she speaks Spanish, she met Maria somewhere, and doesn’t like being alone.
I wish I could know who she is, so that I could tell her this:
Yes, a lot of people feel the same way. I would even dare saying that most people fear being alone.
Because we’ve been taught that being alone implies feeling lonely: if we see someone sitting alone at lunch, we assume he’s lonely, we feel sorry for him and think he has no friends; if we see someone alone at the movies, we assume the same – obviously, he is alone because he couldn’t find anyone to come with him.
It never occurs to us that someone would actually want to do something on their own: sit alone at the lunch table to enjoy a bit of silence on a work pause; go to the movies on his own because he’s not interested in sharing his popcorn, or hearing someone else’s opinion during the break.
But it goes much deeper.
Because we assume that being alone equals feeling lonely, we fear it. We avoid it at all costs. Home alone for a weekend? I call all my friends to come over for dinner and a sleep over. Got some days off work? Persuade someone to go on a road trip with me. Coming home to an empty house? God-forbid. I turn on the TV, put on some music – anything that fills up the silence.
Eating alone? Sad. Sleeping alone? Cold. Living alone? Boring. Travelling alone? Scary.
Being alone? Lonely.
This makes us constantly look for ways to fill up our loneliness: dating, having casual sex, binge watching a TV show, getting drunk, scrolling on social media, calling a friend. Anything that keeps our mind busy. Anything that keeps us from listening to the voice in our heads.
The most neglected relationship we all have is the one with ourselves.
And – bad news – it is the most important one. Because it’s upon it that all other relationships are based on.
If we don’t invest in ourselves, why would someone else?
If we don’t enjoy time with ourselves, why would someone else?
If we don’t love ourselves, why would some else?
But most people just give all they’ve got to someone or something else: school, career, friends, family, most significant other.
I have to take care of my grandparents; how can I afford time for myself?
I have to be there for my best friend, who just broke up with her boyfriend;
I have to work on a paper due next week;
I have to help my children with their homework;
I have to cook a nice dinner for my boyfriend.
But, as Puneh recalled her mentor telling her, “how can you give from your cup if your cup is empty?”
The emergency instructions on a plane say that you should put your oxygen mask first, even before putting it on your kids. Because if you’re not breathing, you won’t be able to help them either.
This teaches a very important lesson – put your oxygen mask on, and put it FIRST.
We need to prioritize self-care – it must be first, or it won’t happen at all.
If we don’t make it a priority, moments for ourselves will always be postponed.
I have a free morning tomorrow so I’m going to read this book I’ve had on my shelf for so long. Until a friend calls and asks if you want to go for brunch. Of course! Why would I say no? The book will still be there when I’m back.
But guess what? So will the friend. And if you skip reading your book – or exercising, or writing, or going for a massage – anytime someone suggests something else, you will never do it. You will always be second choice.
Until the day you need to be taken care of, and no one has made you their first choice either.
And we make the mistake of assuming that, because we are taking care of others, others should be taking care of us.
I learned it the hard way:
I was always there for my friends. I felt their every loss. I advised them in every decision. I was present in every moment. And I just assumed they would do the same. And that they should do the same.
And then I started getting disappointment after disappointment. I felt my friendship wasn’t reciprocated. That they didn’t care about me as much as I cared about them. I blamed them for being selfish and self-centered.
Until I realized – I was wrong, not them. They weren’t giving too little – I was giving too much.
And I was giving too much to them because I wasn’t saving any to myself. Any time, any love, or any attention.
I occupied my mind with someone else’s problems. I had the solution for all of them. I gave the best advice. But I was a mess myself, and I didn’t even realize it.
Or maybe I did, but I avoided dealing with it at all costs.
Until I had no choice. Until I hit rock bottom, and there was no one else around.
I tried to grab a couple of people’s arms on the surface, but they didn’t pull me hard enough. And I blamed it on them. Why wouldn’t they pull me out? Didn’t they notice I was drowning?
Until it hit me – they also need to use their arms to stay afloat. If they come for me, they can drown too. And instead of wasting my energy trying to reach them, I need to hold my breath, reach for that bottom I’m so terrified of, and push back up.
You see, others are not there to rescue us. Only we can do that.
“We live together but die alone”. That’s the hard truth. It’s a lonely road in the end. And we need to be prepared for that.
Don’t get me wrong, relationships are VERY important. Others can help us find our way. But they are not there to give us the answers, they are there to ask the questions – and pay attention because, sometimes, the best questions come wrapped in an envelope, hanging on a rooftop.
And then, we need to figure out the responses. Alone. But never lonely.