After Christmas, I went up the mountain for some cross-country skiing. By myself.
Between my wife’s death and COVID-19 isolation, I’ve spent a lot of time alone this past year.
There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. Lonely is a state of mind; alone is a fact.
In the silence broken only by my skis swooshing along the tracks, I amused myself thinking of the benefits of being alone.
No negotiating about where to go, or when and where to meet.
No competition about who’s going to drive.
No disagreements over what to pack for lunch. No juggling of menus to suit someone else’s dietary needs.
No hurrying to keep up with someone younger and fitter.
No reason not to stop, to catch a breath, to take in the view…Or, in other settings, to pull off the road to read a historical marker, or to visit some natural wonder you’ve always rushed past before.
No need to phone anyone just because you’re running a little late.
And in a broader sense, no interruptions in the middle of a thought, a moment of meditation or of prayer.
You may have noticed, though, that I listed all those points as negatives. Because those benefits don’t outweigh the losses.
We, humans, are social animals. Evolutionary biologists now argue that the key factor in evolution is not survival of the most powerful or most ruthless, but the most cooperative.
That applies at all levels of life. From forests where trees nurture other trees. To single-celled creatures that clump together to share specialized functions. To elephants that form a living fortress to protect their young from predators.
And we humans are the most collaborative of creatures. Even if, for much of our history, we’ve done it only so that we could make war more efficiently. Against other humans. Or against nature.
Consider – whales talk. Their whistles and grunts can travel great distances in the ocean.
But there is no way that an Atlantic whale can help a Pacific whale find food, or extricate itself from a net.
But a doctor in Wuhan can assist a doctor in Wichita treat a COVID-19 patient. A faceless voice in India can help me fix a computer glitch in Canada. A rocket technician in Moscow can send an American astronaut to the international space station.
We are who we are because we work together. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
Whether we’re acting together on life’s stage, or performing a solo before an audience, we need each other. Would Mark Antony have delivered his famous “Friends! Romans! Countrymen!” speech to an empty plaza if everyone had stayed home to watch Netflix?
I write alone, true. I have to. But I write because, like Antony, I have an audience to write for.
Even the joy of skiing, for me, is not the skiing itself. Part of the pleasure is the conversation in someone’s car, there and back.
Sitting in the lodge, eating a sandwich together. Talking about which trails we took.
And did we see the rabbits, the coyote track, the sunlight turning a field of snow crystals into dancing diamonds…
Being alone offers some benefits, certainly.
But they’re no substitute for being together.
Jim Taylor lives in Lake Country.