Being Alone vs. Being With Myself

When Art used to travel frequently for work, as he was leaving the house he would give me a forlorn look and tell me how much he was going to miss me. I’d look forlorn back and say, “I feel so bad for you. When you go away you’re all alone but I still have myself, and I’m such good company!” It made me laugh every time, no matter how many times I used the line on him. He would understandably roll his eyes, shake his head and tell me he never knew anyone who found themselves as entertaining as me.

Since Art’s death I’ve spent a lot of time in my own company. As it turns out, being with myself is a much bigger challenge than I had imagined. People have encouraged me to rediscover myself since Art’s death. “Rediscover the things you used to love to do,” they say. Others, including Art, urged me to allow myself to be transformed by this experience of love and loss. “If you allow yourself to stay open – to really experience all that this experience brings, it will change you deeply,” he said. I’ve been challenged by others to give myself full permission to pursue my deepest desires and whimsical impulses.

Each of these ideas sounds inspiring and intriguing to me. The key to all this self-discovery and transformation is simply being with oneself. With 150 days under my belt since Art’s death one would think that I’ve had plenty of time to be with myself. As it turns out I’ve spent lots of time alone but very little time with myself.

As it turns out being alone and being with oneself are not synonymous. It is safe to say I have mastered the alone part of the equation. My daily routine remains largely the same as it was with Art but each moment is punctuated by his absence. I walk Mario alone in the morning and after work. After I sit in our backyard swing alone. I go into the house and make dinner alone. This alone. That alone. I sink into the sofa and one of the picture books Art made for me catches my eye on the coffee table. I feel as though everything points my attention towards Art, his absence and my memories of him.

In the last couple of months I have consciously tried to shift my focus back towards me. The first time was excruciating as I struggled to look fully at the image of myself that came into my mind’s eye. The image was of me sitting alone, perfectly still. Small. Vulnerable. In this view, for the first time I did not see the absence of Art but the fullness of my new solitary being. It was like one of those optical illusions that contains two separate images and if you adjust your view slightly, you see one or the other. My perspective kept shifting. In one perspective, it was as if Art had been cut out of the picture with scissors and I was left standing next to the gaping hole. In the other, nothing was missing – it was just me. Alone but still whole.

For maybe the first time my tears weren’t all about Art, they were about me. I felt fully the heaviness of my own body and the way it feels weighed down. I had been unable to look closely at myself for many months. It’s like when you pass by a mirror or window and catch a glimpse of your reflection out of the corner of your eye and then turn away. I have been unable and unwilling to stop and look at myself full-on. I haven’t wanted to see myself standing alone, so tired and sad. I haven’t wanted to claim my own space in the world and occupy it fully without Art.

I knew it was time to begin the process of paving a path back to myself so I signed up for a five week meditation class. I have meditated off and on over the years but never with the discipline I’d like.  Turns out that spending 90 minutes a week on an uncomfortable cushion can be a real shock to the system! Being with myself is much more than simply noticing the absence of Art. BEING is an active process, not a passive state of being. It is more than the absence of Art. It is coming into full awareness of my thoughts and feelings and simply sitting with them.

What has quickly become most noticeable is It that being with myself means being with the duality of everything. Immense grief alongside gratitude. A longing to keep Art close while also needing to let him go. A desire to resolve things while also surrendering to the unfolding of life on its own terms. Moments of laughter that lay on top of a deep, underlying sadness. I suppose this is nothing new. Many of us have felt both dread and excitement when we’re about to take a leap into new territory. In my deepest sadness I also recognize the depth of my love for Art. They are opposite sides of the same coin.

One day last week while I was walking home from the subway, I had a minute where I nearly forgot that Art had died. In that moment, I felt the way I always felt walking home prior to January 10. I was excited, thinking about everything I’d say to him when I walked in. I anticipated cooking dinner together, his eagerness to hear about my day and mine to hear about his. Suddenly reality smacked me upside the head again and I came back to this new reality. I noticed how I lost all my excitement. When I take a deep breath and turn inward, I realize I don’t feel as courageous, certain or adventurous as I did when Art was alive.

And so now the real work begins. While being with myself means recognizing the range of thoughts and emotions I – and all of us – encounter, I’ve discovered that the bigger challenge is not simply noticing all my thoughts and feelings. The bigger challenge lies in not reacting to all of them. Real growth lies in trying NOT to change them, dismiss them, fix them or otherwise obliterate them.   We are socialized to view difficult thoughts and feelings as problems to solve. In noticing that I feel less courageous, my first inclination is to try to solve that problem…to figure out a way to regain my courage and demonstrate it to myself. But instead I stop and just notice how it feels to be less courageous. I believe that if I can be with my own lack of courage, perhaps I can be with others who are struggling similarly. Maybe it will strengthen my empathic muscle and will, conversely, heighten my awareness of those moments in the future when I feel brave. Maybe simply being with my longing to have Art back with me, opens me up more to feeling the fullness of our love. He may be dead but love is still alive. It is still in me and only when I can slow down enough to really be with myself, can I find this reservoir of love – the love so generously bestowed on me by others and the love in me that needs to find its full expression.

I suspect, like many of us, I’m quite good at being with others in both their pain and joy. I’m a pretty good listener, able to really feel the feelings of others, hear what’s being said beneath the surface and be fully present. And like many of us, I don’t really apply those skills to myself. It is easy to turn away from oneself, to be distracted by the world around us and consumed our daily obligations and schedules. But now, to truly discover who I am separate from my identity as Art’s husband (the identity I have loved more than any other I have claimed!), I have to extend the same deep listening and presence to myself.

When I quiet myself, listen and observe with more heightened awareness and presence, my view of myself starts to expand. For example, until now I thought of grief as a big, dark, impenetrable wall.   It all felt the same – overwhelming, relentless and unpredictable. Nothing distinguished one moment of grief from another. Slowly I have started to notice that all grief is not the same. It has many shades and sources. Sometimes my grief is sheer loneliness. Other times I grieve at my memories of how Art suffered. And at other times I grieve when I remember how it felt to felt to be so deeply loved…to be greeted with loving surprises each day, with random messages of love and encouragement. All grief is not the same.

As the subtleties of grief – and other emotions – become clearer, I also notice that all of me is not grieving all the time. If I look at myself with a sharper focus, if I watch and listen with more awareness, I see parts of me that are excited, anticipating something new, still marveling at the world around me. I think about the times when I’ve been sick or in pain and how I’ve allowed the sickness or pain define me. What if we were able to hold a more balanced view and see the parts of ourselves that are not sick, in pain, grieving or overwhelmed? What if I could still see my wholeness while feeling so broken? At any one point I am not defined by any singular thought, emotion or state of being. None of us are.

When Art was diagnosed with dreaded IPF, we set a very explicit intention of opening ourselves up not just to one another but to the world around us…to share our experience, challenges and joy in the hope that we could continue to open ourselves to love. We did not want to get to the end of his life and feel as if we had shrunk back but rather wanted to feel that we had leaned into the richness of life. And we did. Now, if I am to continue to live in this same way I see that it requires me to be fully with myself. To be with my pain and suffering but with my joy and resilience as well. There is a deep vulnerability in being with myself – opening myself up to the parts of me I love and those that…well…I have less than love for. It is all there and is all real.

And so, if you stop to listen, look and feel deeply within yourself, what do YOU find?







~ by Art on July 1, 2017.

2 Responses to “Being Alone vs. Being With Myself”

  1. John, many things you say will have to be processed in my heart and in my soul. Thank you for your vulnerability – you are an inspiration! Iveta Clarke

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: