In April of 2014, I traveled to Paris, France, alone. I mostly did it because I had not succeeded in several things in my life at that point, and I wanted to prove I was at least capable of taking care of myself on my own. Plus, who doesn’t love Paris? And I did learn I could carry myself on my own for two weeks, but I also learned how much resilience it takes to be alone.
Before I left, I dreamed of wandering down romantic streets and drinking coffee in cafes, and getting lost in museums. What I did not dream of was the effort it would take each time to leave the door of my AirBnB. My AirBnB was incredibly boring compared to the beautiful streets of Paris–a tiny room crushed under the eaves of a building in Montmartre. But however romantic the streets were, I had not counted on how it would feel to venture out in crowds of faceless strangers who cared nothing for your existence. I had to find the nerve to brave every frowning waiter guarding the entrance to the cafes. I had to find the confidence each metro train would not deposit me in a place I’d be lost in forever. I had to brave the dangers of wending through crowds as a naive tourist, all alone.
To be alone is to be vulnerable. You know that the instant you are alone, completely cut off from your familiarity, even if your new context is as safe as anywhere can be. You quickly tire of braving the irritation and disdain of strangers, of risking a smile and getting blankness in return.You tire of knowing if you do not care about what you do, there’s no one else who cares either. And you realize how vague and unreal what you see becomes when there’s no one by your side to exclaim over them with you–you are excited, but is it truly real if no one sees your excitement?
So I did learn about what it took to be alone, and I was surprised by what I learned. It was more than just learning to be content with your own company–because I have always been content with myself, I didn’t expect that part to be hard. But to be alone, more is needed. You have to also be content with vulnerability. You have to have an enormous reserve of strength to continue risking and risking and risking leaving your own door. You have to face an unfriendly world with very little in the way of defenses.
This weekend, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I lost the bravery to leave my own bedroom. Not because I was afraid of the virus, like it was lurking somewhere in the house. But I had no resilience within myself to face the complexities of living–the multiple steps of making a sandwich and getting myself coffee were just too overwhelming. It was like I was transported to an unfamiliar country where I did not know the language, and I had been tasked to navigate it by myself–transported to a brave new world where nothing familiar could be counted on. And I couldn’t do it. Whatever resilience I had found within myself in Paris to keep going out to see the Louvre, to see the Eiffel tower, to see the Luxembourg Gardens, had dried up.
To cope with my fragility, I made my world smaller.
In some sense, we’re always alone. Even now, when we’re still tenuously connected to each other through the internet, just as I was still connected to those back home while I was in Paris–connected, and yet each step taken is my own responsibility. No one else can share what we experience. No one else can care about what happens to us in the same, intense way that we care. It feels important to be able to hold on in the storm when all we’ve got is ourselves, and yet too often this is the hardest thing to do. We can’t face the storm, we can only retreat into our caves.
Perhaps this is not such a strange reaction for me. After going through a hip surgery last year, I was forced to minimize my world. I couldn’t guarantee I could succeed in making myself a cup of coffee. I couldn’t guarantee walking out the door wouldn’t trigger a wave of pain that would keep me lying on my back for a weekend. This may’ve built this reaction into me–when I cannot manage, I just don’t. I limit my world to what I can cope with. And I do not know how to find a stronger, healthier reaction.
Exposure therapy is one strategy to manage your irrational fears. My irrational fear when I went to Paris was that I was dysfunctional in a way that could not survive in the regular world, and that I would always be dependent on others to carry me. And while I did go to Paris and return, I am not sure that fear has been proven wrong. I am still lacking the resilience needed to keep risking all the steps necessary to survive in life. I keep realizing I am fragile and vulnerable and that the world does crush me.
However, life has a way of moving on, somehow. As messy as it is, I do find myself getting to the next day, and the next day, and the next. I do not know when this pandemic will end. I do not know if I will ever learn to be resilient enough to go out into the world and achieve things I want to achieve. I do not know how much I’ll have to carry by myself, or how often I’ll find others out there to walk through the next steps with. But maybe it’s hopeful enough to see I do get through it.
Take it one step at a time.