Earlier this month, I put the call out on Twitter for guest posts (hey – do you want to guest post on The Quarterlife Quest? If so, email me!), and J. Maureen Henderson of Generation Meh responded immediately, saying her curiosity was piqued. Now, it just so happens that I love the word “piqued” so I was super keen to get her ideas on potential guest posts. The following post stems from the viral Youtube phenomenon “How To Be Alone” that I posted on this week’s weekend wisdom:
I first saw How to Be Alone when a friend posted the link on Facebook. From there, it started popping up all over Twitter and eventually became a bona fide viral sensation (close to a million YouTube hits and counting). I confess to being initially baffled by the video. Do we really need instructions on how to navigate modern society solo? Is going to the gym unaccompanied or eating dinner for one something people legitimately struggle with? Given the overwhelmingly positive response that the video has generated, I guess the answer is yes. And while I’m unruffled by these activities myself (lots of foreign biz travel and three consecutive nights of salted cashews and dubbed Slavic soap operas in your sad hotel room will break you of the eating alone phobia pretty quickly), I recognize that there’s a deeper issue at play when it comes to how poet Tanya Davis’s gently-phrased five-minute tutorial on the upsides of solitude has been embraced by viewers; it’s not so much being on our own that bothers us, it’s just being.
Our society rewards doing over being, achievement over embodiment. It’s great to be smart and funny and kind, but what do you have to show for these qualities? Can it be summed up in a bullet list peppered with appropriate action verbs? Well, so much the better. Go tangible, or go home. We evaluate ourselves and each other based on our productivity over the content of our character. And the reality of 24/7 connectivity only makes this easier. We can’t really tell if he and his family are happy and functional, but a few clicks around Facebook will let us know that Greg from 11th grade history class grew up to be a patent lawyer married to a stunning documentary filmmaker and is now the father of cherubic three-year old twins. He might be an utter bastard (he did have the makings of it back in the day), but look what he has to show for the years!
Although the series is more of a guilty pleasure than a source of regular introspective epiphanies, a scene from a recent episode of Project Runway summed up the pitfalls of this orientation nicely, as contestant Mondo tearfully recounted his inability to forge ties with the rest of the cast and his wish that he could someday be loved just for who he is and not for the beautiful garments he turns out. From the mouths of reality show fame seekers, indeed. It’s an interesting conundrum when the desire to be accepted and valued for the intrinsic bumps up against the reality of building our sense of self around the extrinsic. Even as we long for or evince a take me as I am attitude, we’re unsure of what that am is and whether it really represents something that others would value or treasure. And taking the steps to find this out involves entering scary and uncharted territory.
If we define ourselves through motion and action, who are we in the absence of our accomplishments and material assets? Do we even want to know the answer? The attention garnered by How to Be Alone suggests that we do. We’re a curious species, as any toddler in range of a hot stove could surely tell you. Not all of us may be ready to plunge headlong into contemplation of the nature of the self, but we can surely take baby steps in that direction by consciously choosing to demystify and destigmatize the prospect being an individual in a collective world and by doing it one solo cup of coffee at a time.
J. Maureen Henderson is a writer, Gen Y expert and general know-it-all. She blogs pithily on personal and professional development at Generation Meh and can be wooed on Twitter at @GenerationMeh. When it comes to being alone, JMH takes all her cues from Heart.