Americans are deeply ambivalent about the solitary person in our midst. On the one hand, the lone hero is much admired in national folklore -- the cowboy alone on the ridge at sunset, the daring adventurer on the road (most often a man, but in contemporary life, women also, as seen in the wonderful 1991 film Thelma and Louise) -- all free of bonds. There's been a kind of romantic admiration for the loner, sometimes with a pal, who strikes out, independent and self-reliant, roaming the backroads and having adventures that can only come to those who are unfettered and isolate.
On the other side of our ambivalence is the belief that to be alone, even temporarily, is to have been abandoned and to be sunk in a black misery of loneliness. This is understood to be particularly dreadful for women, many of whom have been, for most of their lives, so busy dealing with life on behalf of what feels sometimes like multitudes of people that to be alone must, it is argued, feel like a soul-shattering desertion by fate.
As many older women can wryly testify, a little alone time after lifetimes of juggling work and family is not quite the sentence to desperation that men, especially, have outlined for them. It is believed that it was a male physician who coined the term "empty nest" to refer to the time when a women's child care responsibilities had shifted (they never end) to adult children, and then, often, to grandchildren.
For many women, the period when there are no more children at home has poignant moments of nostalgia, to be sure, but most survive nicely, feeling more the emotion sung in the civil rights anthem, "free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free at last."
Five Steps to Harvesting the Fruits of Solitude
Becoming friendly with ourselves alone is a gradual learning program that includes these steps:
1. Move toward wholeness by grounding yourself in a basic idea: all human beings need some kind of human connection that includes a degree of intimacy. No one can exist in health as a hermit or recluse, except perhaps the most productive of geniuses and even they always seemed to know how to get a good dinner at a friend's house.
But given the probability that most older women will have someone -- children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues -- with whom some portion of their life can be shared, a certain comfort immediately appears because, in truth, one is not completely alone in the world. There are even many settings in which colleagues provide a great deal of needed human connection -- the armed forces, company workplaces, offices, institutions, and organizations of all kinds.
2. Take a fresh look at the phenomenon of solitude itself. Of course, voluntary solitude is much to be desired, but given the circumstances of older women, involuntary solitude is more likely, and so the task of finding one's "self" is part of the process of exploring the benefits that developing a capacity for solitude might yield.
3. Embrace the alone time, and consider it beneficial. It might help you tap into the creativity that exists to some degree in everyone; it need not be as formally structured as picking up a brush to paint or sitting at the piano to compose. However, solitude can allow a return to creative, imaginative pursuits that have been abandoned since childhood. Women who always meant to learn a musical instrument, or make pottery, or keep a journal or a diary, or study languages are, sometimes quite suddenly, able to imagine a self that does those things in a pleasurable solitary pursuit.
4. Maximize the possible gifts flowing from your burgeoning capacity for solitude, gifts that include the chance to sort things out, especially after a loss. There is a certain amount of grief work, for widows and for all who have lost close intimates, that has to be done alone. It is wonderful to have the comfort of friends and family, but, in the end, the widow must lie alone in the dark and begin to come to terms with loss, as must the newly-divorced or those separated in any way from a world they once knew. These slow approaches to healing cannot all be experienced in the company of others, no matter how much reassurance and help they provide. And the solitude necessary for sorting things out also applies to other important life decisions, notably moving away from home, changing jobs and careers, and dealing with disappointment and betrayal -- all benefit from alone time, no matter how useful it is to talk to partner, friend, or therapist.
5. Develop a true understanding of yourself and work on your ideas and deepest beliefs. Getting to know one's deepest feelings, opinions, and attitudes is one of the hardest tasks of living -- at any age -- but it becomes more and more necessary as we age so that we can shape our "third age" in a way that gives us the most serenity and pleasure.
Balancing Solitude and Connection
The ideal, of course, is to balance solitude and connection, but for American women, the need to always be in the company of others has been part of their socialization as women, as citizens, and as workers; so widowhood or not remarrying after divorce presents special challenges that might be enriched by the gifts of solitude.
Whether in solitude or in companionship, there exists a kind of pride in making do, in carrying on, in holding things together. Author Barbara Holland wrote a book called One's Company in which she looks at the need for connection and closely analyzes solitude. She writes:
"It's important to stop waiting and settle down and make ourselves comfortable, at least temporarily, in this moonscape, and find some grace and pleasure in our condition... like a patient, enchanted princess in a tower, learning to wring honey from a stone . . . after all, here we are. It may not be where we expected to be, but for the time being, we might as well call it home."
As we seek the transforming power of love, as we seek deeper understanding of ourselves and those around us, we must summon all our courage to choose our old age and to believe that we can make it rich with meaning. Albert Camus, the French writer, said: "In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Those of us in the winter of our lives can find that summer, too, if we remain open to the wonders of the world.
Published by New World Library, Novato, CA 94949.
Copyright 2000. www.nwlib.com
Seasons of the Heart: Men and Women Talk About Love, Sex, and Romance After 60
by Zenith Henkin Gross.
Journalist Zenith Gross encourages readers to discover their own ways to express love, sensuality, and sexuality during the 20 to 40 years of life after they turn 60. Through her interviews with more than 300 men and women, she uncovers the elements of and barriers to happiness that cross ethnic, economic, religious, and cultural boundaries. This book helps dispel the myths of aging and illuminates how good romance - and sex - can be in later life. Gross culled 153 personal accounts for this book, including those of average men and women as well as famous elders.
About The Author
ZENITH HENKIN GROSS worked as a journalist for more than thirty-five years, both as a freelancer and for the Associate Press. She is also the author of And You Thought It Was All Over: Mothers and Their Adult Children. This article was excerpted with permission from her book "Seasons of the Heart".