Everything Matters: Living Alone as a Cultural Act

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Living Alone Sized for Posting

“Most people wouldn’t understand why we do this,” I said to two friends one day as we were shopping.

“Spend four hours buying food?” Jamie asked. We laughed. We already had been to the farmers market, a coffee shop, and two grocery stores.

“No, run errands together,” I said. “Most married people, especially if they have kids, wouldn’t get together with friends and go to the grocery store. And I don’t think they would understand why we do it.”

I wondered about it myself. Why is it that many Saturdays I find myself in the car driving around town with these or other single friends who live alone like I do, picking up a gift at a department store, doing the week’s shopping, or depositing a check at the credit union?

Recent census figures indicate that 28 percent of all American households, and as many as 50 percent in large metropolitan areas, now are made up of just one member. That’s 31 million of us using our dryers as a dresser, eating peanut butter out of the jar with our fingers, or leaving the door open when we are in the bathroom.

Eric Klinenberg’s book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, analyzes this cultural phenomenon in which a large percentage of people are living on their own for the first time in history. Just 60 years ago, only 22 percent of American adults were single and a mere four million lived alone, accounting for only nine percent of households. Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single.

But though so many of us are doing it, living alone is something few people like to talk about. And even then, “on those rare occasions when there is a public debate about the rise of living alone, commentators tend to present it as an unmitigated social problem, a sign of narcissism, fragmentation, and a diminished public life,” Klinenberg says in his book. Living alone often is perceived as an act of anti-culture, contributing creatively and productively to oneself only.

I had some of the same concerns when I bought my house. Was I being selfish, or even self-indulgent, to choose this lifestyle? Was it a waste of money to pay all the expenses of a household for just me? Or worse, was I cutting myself off from community, isolating myself permanently? Signing the mortgage that day felt like a long-term commitment to a life of single occupancy.

At my age, most people I meet assume I am married with kids. When I tell them I am not, they look surprised. Especially when I tell them I live alone in a home I own. Then come the questions: Do I cook for myself? Am I scared to be alone? Do I shovel the snow from my own driveway?

Mostly, I think people just wonder if I am lonely.

Living alone is possible for so many people, not because of an increased sense of independence, but precisely because our increasingly urban, plugged-in culture has made us so interdependent.

In an interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Klinenberg emphasized that “living alone is different from being alone and it’s different from feeling lonely and it’s different from being isolated.” In many cases, people who live alone often are “socially overextended,” and “struggle more with avoiding the distraction of always available social activity . . . than with being disconnected,” he writes.

That’s been my experience, too. Relationships with friends take the place of a nuclear family. But instead of scrambling for time together under one roof, if I want to be with my “family,” I have to leave the house, virtually if not actually.

But it goes beyond social activity to culture-making. The time I can devote to working past the clock, volunteering at church, helping friends update their resumes, even writing this article, is not just a luxury of living alone. It’s the hallmark. The time I am not investing in a nuclear family is spent in other culturally significant ways, like sharing a meal with others.

A few weeks ago, I went to Jamie’s house for tacos. The same three of us from the shopping trip were eating together, as is our habit. I brought the tomatoes and black beans. Verray made the guacamole.

Just before I hopped in the car, I realized I was wearing my “house sweater,” the quirky one I wear only at home. I reached my arm out, preparing to take it off in exchange for a more suitable item of clothing. But then I stopped. If ever there were an occasion to wear my “house sweater” out of the house, it was this one.

It wasn’t like I was wearing it to a friend’s house. This was family.

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The "Everything Matters" Collection

Image by Sippanont Samchai. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.