Back in one of the lengthier Sydney lockdowns, I decided to learn a new skill. It didn’t require sourdough starter, a crochet hook or special shoes. It didn’t even require a device; actually, it called for me to put down my device. I decided to learn to just be with my thoughts.
I used to be very good at that. Back when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, I didn’t have a choice! I didn’t have my own landline or TV, so when alone in my bedroom I was either reading, listening to music or daydreaming. I certainly had no portable devices to distract me, so out walking, on the train or standing in a queue, I had no alternative but to let my mind wander.
But once the smartphone came along, I never needed to be alone with my thoughts, so I very rarely was. And after my divorce, I distracted myself in every idle moment. I chatted to friends on WhatsApp, scrolled through Instagram and Facebook, and fell down internet rabbit holes. I listened to podcasts, posted on Twitter and engaged in pointless arguments with strangers on social media.
I spent most of my time absorbing the thoughts of other people and very little time exploring my own. What’s more, I was spending hours swiping on dating apps, frantically searching for a partner. This was in part because I was lonely and wanted companionship. But it was also – I realise now – because I didn’t know how to be alone. I had no idea how to keep myself company, or to validate or nurture myself, so I looked to other people to give me what I needed.
In lockdown, however, I couldn’t go on dates and I grew tired of endlessly running from my thoughts.
I resolved to stop distracting myself, to put down my devices and to be alone with my feelings and thoughts. And it was hard, really hard. My fingers twitched to pick up my phone. I wanted to text a friend, swipe through Tinder or jump into the latest furore on Twitter.
But I didn’t. I lay on my couch, pottered around my house and walked around my ’hood without a phone or headphones, alone with my thoughts. I talked to myself as though I was talking to a friend. I gave myself space to daydream, to retrieve memories and to imagine futures. I discovered a whole world in my mind I had rarely accessed.
I began to feel calmer, more creative and far less lonely. This felt paradoxical at the time, but it makes sense now. After all, loneliness is the gap between the connection we crave and the connection we actually have. The more I nurtured and supported myself, the less I needed from others, so the smaller that loneliness gap. And the more connected I felt to myself, the more authentically I connected with other people, so the better my relationships were.
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