Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Although she made this observation with specific regard to opportunities denied to women writers (and, of course, women generally) through the first decades of the twentieth century, her statement is also capable of stirring the independent spirit within any of us when interpreted more generally.
There is something about having a room of one’s own (or, as I suppose we would say today, a place of one’s own) that calls to mind notions of independence and pleasure—the opportunity to arrange a place as you see fit, free from any third party constraints, and the ability to enjoy your own space simply because it belongs only to you.
Despite the fact that I do believe human beings are generally happiest and most fulfilled when sharing their lives with others, this is often easier said than done. There is a reason why we must slowly and patiently teach children the importance of sharing. While it may be natural for humans to long to share their emotions and experiences, it is far less easy to convince us to share our possessions and our space.
I imagine that this dichotomy must often leave people feeling torn. For example, with regard to rooming arrangements, is it preferable to enjoy the emotional support and companionship that comes with having a roommate, or the solitude and freedom of living alone? With regard to work situations, is it better to engage in the stimulation and compromises that come with cooperative group efforts, or the daring and unhampered creativity of thinking on one’s own? And with regard to relationships, how are we to choose between the comfort and solidarity of a partner and the independence and excitement of the single life?
For a long time, I thought that the answers to these questions were simple. But I was mistaken.
For a long time, I thought that no one in their right mind would choose being single over sharing life with someone else, or would choose living alone over having someone to come home to at the end of the day. Conversely, in work and academic settings, I have always been fiercely independent; even in group settings, I sought to exercise some control over all parts of the work process so that I could be sure the final product would be a success.
Now, all of that is changing.
In my professional life, although I still find collaborative work challenging and frequently frustrating, I am really beginning to see the truth of the old adage that two heads are better than one. Recognizing that a combined work product may be better than something I could produce by myself has not come easily to me, and indeed continues to come slowly. It means recognizing that I am not always right, do not always have all the answers, and may not even be as intelligent as others I work with. These are not easy things to admit, but there is a value in finding this balance.
In my personal life, on the other hand, I think a still greater revolution is taking place. Perhaps this is simply something to be expected as part of growing up (which I believe we all continue to do until the day we die), but I am finally beginning to discover the luxurious liberty of being left alone. The remarkable aspect of this realization is that I went for so long being afraid of exactly that.
Type “fear of being” into your Google search bar, and you’ll see that it will automatically prompt you with “alone.” This is no coincidence; it must be the most common query that begins with those three words. Not fear of being touched, or fear of being judged, or fear of being buried alive, but fear of being alone. The others are common, but “alone” is first.
Of course, I should be careful not to over-interpret this result; the third most frequent query is “fear of being watched by a duck.”
It’s called anatidaephobia, if you wondered, and I wouldn’t say that it’s profoundly characteristic of the human condition simply because it’s the third to pop up on Google’s list of suggested queries. But fear of being alone—automysophobia—is something I’m sure everyone has felt at some point.
For a long time, though, I also thought that it was perfectly natural to feel that way. It took a number of painful experiences, as well as a number of strong examples set by wonderful mentors and close friends, for me to see that in fact constantly seeking to be with, near, or loved by someone else is not a healthy approach.
I have finally begun to see that what is to be feared is not being alone, but being unable to be alone.
If I were to go through my whole life without someone else, that would no doubt be sad. But if I were to go through even a small part of my life so dissatisfied or uncomfortable with myself that I had to flee to someone else for validation—if I could not find serenity within myself and could not be happy living “in my own skin,” as they say—then that would be truly tragic.
I’ve found that there is strength in being able to contemplate singleness, aloneness, even loneliness without a shudder. The confidence and self-assurance that this contemplation requires can produce an enviable sort of serenity of the soul.
So even if you live with one or more others, and even if you are in the middle of a long and committed relationship, make sure that you have a room of your own. It doesn’t have to be your own place to live or even a physical room; it must be a state of mind—a mental place where you are capable of being alone…
… and where you like it that way, too.