Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/12/2011

On the perils of being alone – Or let’s (square) dance the night away.

A Saturday Alone

My day has been slightly unusual—but not unique as my days go. I awoke at 4:00 AM. I wrote for a couple of hours—nothing that I want anyone to see—the run-on stream of consciousness stuff I do when I have to write and have no subject. That seems to be happening more lately. I read some journal articles and started Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the third on my “important-books-I-read-a-long-time-ago-and-am-rereading-this-summer” list. I finished Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. I had forgotten, even though it is not the style of writing we are used to in 20th century fiction, how moving it is. Its simplicity has grandeur.

I’ve taken two naps (“I’m a Baptist and I’m allowed”—name that musical!).  Mostly because I got almost no sleep last night. I’ve worked at the computer—email and such—and I practiced Yoga for about half an hour.

The one thing I have not done so far today is talk to or see anyone. That will change directly because I’m going square dancing, but it feels very strange not to have any human contact for a whole day. I should be used to it by now because it happens, I’d guess, at least one day a week. I don’t mind being alone most of the time, but for some reason it’s bugging me today.

The Next Day

I went square dancing last night. When I got home, I tried to write, but I was too tired. Strange. I was hyper from the dancing and dead tired at the same time. So I went to bed and slept longer if not better than I have for several nights.

What is this square dancing business?

I’m learning to do something that engages both my brain and my feet. Neurologist’s suggestion. I should have tried Country Dancing or something far more sophisticated than square dancing. The country music should be enough to send me screaming from the room. Oops! I like it. And the women’s dresses (short with petticoats so their legs are exposed) should be enough to send me screaming from the room. They don’t bother me. And the Texas good-ole-boys. I hardly know how to talk with them, but—as always happens—when I get over being frightened (they must see I’m gay and reject me), they’re pretty nice “live and let live” guys, I think. I’ve never said the word “gay” to anyone there, and I doubt I ever will.

The truth is they are some of the nicest and most outgoing folks I’ve ever met. Hugs all around, all the time. Friendly. The salt of the earth with normal social skills (they ask simple “get acquainted” questions—at which I am woefully inadequate).

I won’t say this is exactly what I might have chosen to expand my social circle, but it’s fun. Did I say that? Yes. It’s fun. Last night’s was the first regular (not for new dancers) dance I’ve attended, and it was a hoot. I get in the way of the “square” now and then, but the folks push me and pull me around to where I’m supposed to be, and everyone goes on as if nothing untoward happened.

. . . living alone may be quite different from being alone. It is feeling alone that seems to have the strongest association with cognitive decline, that is, individuals who showed the highest cognitive decline across the lifespan were those who also report the highest feelings of loneliness. . . in addition to feeling lonely, it is the actual lack of social support, contact with others, or integration in a social network that drives the decline toward unhappy-sick-aging (1).

Even stranger to me than my feeling alone yesterday is my awareness of the possibility of “aging.” I was 30 and in graduate school just three months ago.

Erik Erickson’s concept of the stages of life is familiar to everyone who’s ever taken an introduction to psychology course. I suppose I never really thought I’d have to give any place to the eighth stage. It’s the last, and it begins roughly at age 65. I’m 66, so I’m roughly at the beginning of it. And believe me, it’s rough. It’s not only shocking to find oneself this age, but it may be the time of the hardest work of all. In Erikson’s well-worn theory, it’s the time when we “look back at our life as filled with perceived failures and fearing death; struggling all the while to make meaning and find our purpose before the end” (2). I’m not sure everyone looks back at perceived failures, but I think everyone struggles to find meaning. It’s not hopeless, of course, because if we can

reflect back on a life well lived with happiness and contentment, feeling fulfilled with a deep sense that our life has had meaning and that we have a made a contribution to life, then we will have a sense of integrity (3).

This square dancing business accomplishes at least two important purposes for me (besides the obvious enjoyable—almost exuberant—form of exercise).  First, it’s a way to insure “social support, contact with others, or integration in a social network.” I will probably not find square dance folk with whom I can communicate deeply. But it is certainly a welcoming social network mostly of folks like me in Erikson’s eighth stage.

More importantly, it does not take place in my head, remembering the past or projecting for the future. It is immediate. It is consonant with Victor Frankl’s definition of meaningful living “as being present in the moment and maintaining an awareness of the process of living, rather than focusing on the end products created” (4).

Most of my life I’ve been caught up in some kind of “existential angst.” (Ugh!) Much of it has been physically induced in my misfiring brain. But much has come from reading and thinking about the certainty of death and the futility of life. I’m almost nihilistic. I’ve read nearly enough Kierkegaard and Sartre. Lepore’s article includes a sentence I’ll interpret my way. It says that “existential philosophers and theologians . . . saw humanity’s reality as an integral part of our place in the world. One cannot simply be conscious; one must be conscious of something” (5).

My boots are made for (square) dancing.

My boots are made for (square) dancing.

Sounds like a no-brainer, but probably not. Our reality is an integral part of our place in the world. I think it’s not as obvious as it seems in light of the next sentence. We must be “conscious of something”—not conscious of nothing.

How about starting with “circle to the left, allemande with the corner, weave the ring, and promenade your partner home.” Reality in the body, in the moment, none of this nihilism or projecting to the future. Awareness of the process of living.
__________________
(1) Andrews, Edward M. “Finding Peace in Successful Aging.” New Theology Review 23.4 (2010): 17.
(2) Andrews 18.
(3) Andrews 18.
(4) Lepore, Mark F. et al. “Existential Theory and Our Search for Spirituality.” Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health 12.2 (2010): 86-111.
(5) Lepore 88.

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Responses

  1. You can always call or email me. I am alone too. your sister.

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  2. Loneliness is an interesting thing isn’t it? I sometimes find that I can be lonely in a cast of thousands. The world is so “Noah’s Ark” based in my perception, that I struggle getting past that . I love reading your blog, because although I approach it from a suburban career housewife type, there really is a lot said that I can relate to. I have recently started a Water aerobics class for similar reasons to your reasons for your aquare dance class. We all have purpose on this planet, however, I think God’s sense of humor allows for us to spend our lives wondering exactly what that is, when in reality we will see the truth in the end. Big hugs your way my friend, and don’t forget to accept the “Honor” from your partner once in a while!

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