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"I like to be alone!" What we can learn from loners
Somewhere in the Harz Mountains, I’m sitting at the edge of the forest and biting into a roll. Next to me is the backpack with the things you need when you want to hike from place to place – toothbrush, clothes, water, provisions for me and Kalle. The rain jacket I have on, it drizzles.
Kalle is silent, because Kalle is a dog. I keep silent, because there is no one else here to talk to. No more than 20 sentences have crossed my lips since I left Hamburg the day before yesterday – addressed to the landlords of the inns where I have stayed since then: "I had reserved a room." – "The dumplings, please." – "Can I pay with card?" I left the cell phone at home. I have not spoken so little since I began to speak 40 years ago.
By chance I came across a book .
Weeks before, I had come across an e-book in the Amazon Kindle store with the title "Aussteigerin aus Versehen" (accidental dropout) – a "true story of a happy life with solitude and in the forest". I downloaded it. It started like this: "In my old life I studied computer science and was around people a lot and often. Today I prefer to be alone. I live in the forest. Alone with my chickens, quails, four cats and a dog. I have neither wife nor husband, nor any need for togetherness. I am enough for myself." The first thing I thought was: "Crazy, I could never live like this!" Then: "What does she have that I don’t have??"
I like to be left alone, but I don’t like to be alone
If I spend more than one day without my family at home, without meeting colleagues or a friend, I get melancholic. A feeling of loss creeps over me, as if – as in Marlen Haushofer’s "Die Wand" – I were cupping my head – Glass between me and the rest of the world. I need the others to feel alive. I fear: I am not enough for myself.
I’ve known for a long time that I’d get lonely alone
Until that afternoon I had thought: That’s just me, that’s how most people are, after all man is a pack animal. Suddenly, however, I found it very tempting to be different from what I am, more independent from the attention of others. Maybe, I thought, I can learn something from loners who don’t shy away from being alone, but enjoy it. I found the woman who lives in the forest on the Internet: Heike Langenkamp writes a web blog. I emailed her and asked if I could visit her. I searched my Facebook page for "convinced loners", who were ready to tell me about themselves.
Being alone is not an emergency solution, but an act of self-determination. It makes you strong!
My heart is pounding, I stop to take a breath. Kalle also stops. I pet him and think: My husband – like the dog clearly in better shape than I – would not stop. He would call the hill I’m climbing "hill" call, run ahead and wait until I reached the top – already I would feel a little bit like a failure. But my husband is not there. Nor a child who is even slower than I am, asking every three seconds for a break, a sip of water, or some other kind of vacation. I am alone. I don’t have to keep up with anyone or take anyone into consideration. My husband thought that "you can do more than twelve kilometers a day". But I am not "one, I am me. I breathe deeply. The forest smells of moss, earth and fir trees, a great peace takes hold of me: I don’t have to create what others create in order to be happy.
A few women got in touch with me on Facebook, and I talked to three of them at length. Each of them is completely different from the others, yet they all call themselves loners. What is it that unites them?
Being alone is not a state of lack, but the possibility to relax
You don’t see being alone as a state of lack, but of possibility – to relax, not to have to bend or expose yourself, to deal with yourself. The 25-year-old Katharina M. is married, has a small circle of friends and an intimate relationship with her family, she nevertheless feels most comfortable alone because "then I don’t have to focus on social interactions, conform and pretend. Fortunately my husband feels the same way. Often there are two of us alone: in the same room, but each of us is doing our own thing". The danger of overhearing inner questions or conflicts, she said, is much smaller in quiet solitude than in bustling company. "You get to know yourself and don’t run away from problems."
Author Barbara van den Speulhof, 53, is also not afraid to listen to herself. Like the other loners, she takes her own thoughts and feelings seriously enough to give them her full attention again and again. "I have no problem with small talk and like to work in a team, but at some point I’ve had enough. Then I long to retreat to gather new strength. Being alone is natural for me. I can’t remember ever getting too much or even bored, I always have too much to think about." The Frankfurt native meets other people not to distract herself, but to be there for them: "At most once a week I arrange to meet, then I try to really listen, and also think afterwards about what’s on the other person’s mind. For me this is an expression of respect."
At parties she prefers to dance instead of talking
Munich-based Ina Gerbsch loves her job as a coach and consultant, in which she constantly interacts with other people. In her free time, however, the 50-year-old rarely socializes with many people; at parties, she prefers to dance rather than talk: "The superficiality of the conversations quickly exhausts me." She also spent the last vacation alone and enjoyed it "voluntarily", as she emphasized: "For me it is important that being alone is not an emergency solution, but an act of self-determination. Constraints make me small and insecure. On the other hand, it strengthens me to consciously go certain ways all by myself – often with the support of other people, but on my own, with my own motivation and my own goal. My experience: It makes me more and more courageous, calm and self-confident."
Sometimes I get lost. There is no one I could blame for it. There is no one to reproach me for being too stupid to find the right turn. When I realize I’ve landed somewhere I didn’t want to go, I sigh and unfold the hiking map. I can’t rely on anyone, I’m not responsible for anyone. This is unusual for me, who has been with the same man for half her life and has been a mother for 14 years. I like it more and more every day. Maybe it’s silly, but every time I finally arrive at my destination, I’m proud of myself.
At first it was terrible
Finally I visited Heike Langenkamp, the woman in the forest. The cottage where she lives is located away from a village in eastern Lower Saxony. We sat in the garden, with Heike Langenkamp’s poodle between us, and one of the cats on my lap. Originally, she told me, the move here was an emergency solution. For financial reasons, she and her boyfriend have decided to make their weekend home their main residence. Then came the separation, the friend moved out. "At first it was terrible, I was lonely. This didn’t happen abruptly, but only gradually. I renovated the house and made it mine, piece by piece. One day I was sitting in the garden and thought: All mine! No one to tell me what to do! Suddenly I felt free. I’ve been happy here ever since."
Once a week, sometimes less, she goes to the supermarket
Now and then she needs things that are only available in Luneburg, but she is always glad to be back home: "The crowds in the city, the hustle and bustle, it all drives me crazy." In the afternoon, after work, she likes to sit in the garden, she listens into the forest, reads or looks into the trees "just like that", writes a new post for her blog or thinks about it. Whether she should write another book or about what it is that she can’t imagine living any other way – in a different place or together with a different person. "Maybe", said Heike Langenkamp at the end of the afternoon, "my being alone is a kind of self-protection. I have always been very adapted to the men I was with. In retrospect I see that I have lost myself. It was only here in the forest, all alone, that I learned to be myself."
Not every loner avoids people as consistently as Heike Langenkamp does. But they all seem to know very well what is good for them and what is not, I thought during the drive home. They are more attentive to their own needs than to the expectations of those around them. In the benevolence with which these women had told about themselves and their peculiarities, I had sensed a strength that I could use more of myself. Maybe, I thought, I should dare to be alone – at least for a few days.
When I arrive at the place where I’ve booked a room for the night, I look forward to a coffee, to the shower, to the bed where I’ll lie down and read until it’s time for dinner. On the other hand, I notice very clearly how my inner self changes as soon as I walk out of the forest into a town. In the forest, I don’t care that my husband’s rain jacket, which I wear, is much too big and bright red. But as soon as I’m around people, I realize that I look like a buoy. In the forest I think, if at all, about myself and my life, because there is nothing to think about in the trees, meadows and streams around me: nature is only suitable for finding beauty. But as soon as I enter the cafe of the 1970s spa house, where a pianist is playing dance music on a synthesizer, my brain starts producing reviews: "How bleak! I hope the guesthouse is not so musty! But still, the cake looks delicious!" From morning to morning I look forward more to being alone in the forest, where I don’t have to worry about how I look to others. Where I can rest from judging and being judged.
In everyday life, the more outgoing and talkative, the better
I told my mother on the phone about my plan to go hiking alone. "Oh", she said "that you of all people do such a thing. " Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a reputation for being an extrovert. I never had anything against this assignment, on the contrary. First at school, then at work, it was an absolute advantage to be one of those who like to talk a lot and be around people. It was much harder for those who were quiet and shy, who preferred to keep to themselves: they were easily overlooked, along with their abilities. Although the "Spiegel" magazine claimed in a front-page story last summer that the "triumph of the inconspicuous" was emerging in the world of work one of the best-selling booklets of the whole year. But in everyday life as I know it, the more outgoing and eloquent the better.
In a competitive society where success is not just a question of competence, but also of self-promotion, popularity and assertiveness are such an important currency that parents of introverted children are already making anxious assessments at kindergarten age: Why is my daughter not invited to her birthday as often as Lea?? Why does our son hardly ever date?? It is rare to hear a mother say with a proud instead of a worried voice: "My child has few friends, it prefers to occupy itself alone." On the other hand, it is very popular to report that one’s son or daughter is always on a date, has umpteen appointments, and is always going out.
After the phone call with my mother, I thought about how the image she had of me, which I had willingly made into my self-image, had come about. True, even back then I was anything but shy, I liked going to school and playing a lot with girlfriends. But there was also another side: I spent hours alone in my room, reading, painting or dancing to my parents’ old hit records, writing letters or a diary. After graduating from high school, I traveled the world alone. When and why did I lose the ability to enjoy being alone?? Perhaps, I thought, I had simply become accustomed to them in the course of growing up. Because it was a skill that seemed to count for nothing in society.
Strange. Here, where far and wide there is no one but me, being alone is easy for me. Because with the absence of other people, the pressure to feel like I belong has disappeared? But I am not always euphoric either. I enjoy nature, I’m hungry and I eat, I’m tired and I take a break, I don’t think about anything in particular, but about everything that comes to my mind, about my family, about the last vacation, about the future, about the ice cream I want to eat later. It is as simple as it is unspectacular: I do and am nothing special. I leave. I am here.
Being consciously alone can make you happy!
"Being alone cuts us off from social roles and outside validation", says Ursula Wagner, a psychologist. "This is threatening at first because we are social beings, which includes defining ourselves by status and ranking. It’s just as normal that it’s more important for some people than others to have lots of contacts, to live at a high level of performance and activity. But in the same way, people – even as babies – have a need to be alone and to process the many external stimuli in peace and quiet. The problem is that qualities such as extraversion, great efficiency and a willingness to perform are overemphasized nowadays. Something is out of balance: The extreme is considered normality."
Who am I? What is important to me?
Ursula Wagner is the author of the book "The art of being alone" and managing director of the Coaching Center Berlin. Her clients include managers whom she helps "strengthen self-reflective skills" – so more "wisdom to be able to lead responsibly, to fill the work with meaning and to do it with joy. To do this, the 48-year-old is convinced, it’s necessary to get away from the "chatter and chatter" of the world around us Of everyday life every now and then to be in silence. Ursula Wagner herself regularly retreats to a monastery: "The emptiness that arises when we are alone makes room for existential questions: Who am I?? What is important to me? What occupies me? What course do my thoughts take when they have free rein and leave the highway of everyday life for once?? Our needs, and even our life lies, become much clearer when you take the time to take stock every now and then." Of course, she says, it can also be that you realize: Actually, everything is just great the way it is. "Then you should be consciously grateful."
I hiked for four days, and on the fifth day I went home. In Hamburg, I leave the train station: The big city, the many cars, the noise, the crowds of people put me in a state of shock. As I get on the bus and squeeze in between the other passengers, I’m about to cry: I want to go back to the forest! Only when my daughter opens the door and hugs me on the neck does my trepidation dissolve into joy: it was great to be alone. It is great to come home.
"And? How was it?", my friend asks a day later. "Great", I say "I will definitely do it again." – "Will you take me with you?", she says. "Let’s see", I answer. Rather not.
, Ursula Wagner, 279 pages, 19.95 euros, Theseus Verlag: The author shows what opportunities even involuntary solitude holds, why conscious withdrawal is good for us, and how it can be shaped. With many exercises and meditation instructions.
In her everyday life animals play a major role, in her blog (
) and her book as well: "accidental dropout + stories from the forest", Heike Langenkamp, 158 pages, 9.90 euros, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform