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Free birds can fly solo: being alone isn’t being lonely

Eleven days into my month-long National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) course, I had just about had it with my random group of twelve. After being isolated in the wilderness with high schoolers from around the country, I needed a break, some time for myself. Once we had made it to camp, I wandered away from my peers and stumbled upon a mound of sand that looked over a glazed lake with the appenglow of the peak above me reflecting onto the water. In the isolation of my hidden spot, I started singing to myself.

Later that night, I chronicled my day into my journal just as I had done every night there. “It’s these kinds of moments that are allowing me to become an individual. Someone who isn’t so reliant on others, like I feel that I am back at home. I don’t want someone’s quick compliment to completely alter my day, or for a negative comment to do the same. The best way to find happiness is to not be reliant. To find it in yourself to be happy, without so much of the influence of others.”

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In high school there is an inherent fear of being alone. People prefer to adventure with their friends, and often believe that it’s more difficult to be happy when they’re not with other people. According to a recent Bark survey, 57 percent of Redwood students reported that they never eat at a cafe or restaurant alone, and 32 percent prefer not to be alone at all.

To all of my seniors, while yes, it’s important to cherish these last few months with your friends, it’s also important to prepare to embark on your first solo journey. Learning to be alone is a key component of the future beyond high school, but it is not always easy. The transition from reliant happiness to self enjoyment comes at the cost of uncomfortable situations. But this gets easier with time and practice. There is more satisfaction in learning that solitude is not a curse, but a self-love technique.

Being alone is not the same thing as being lonely. “Alone” is a physical state. It provides space. However, being “lonely” is an emotional state. Someone could be in a crowd of people and still feel lonely. Sometimes the two are used interchangeably, which puts a negative connotation around the idea of being alone. People who eat on their own or head to the beach by themselves might be viewed as lonely, which isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps someone with enough courage to take him or herself on an adventure is simply more comfortable with themselves without being dependent on the reassurance of their peers.

Before my NOLS course, I found myself constantly wanting to do things for or with people around me. At NOLS, the time I took for myself were moments that helped me to grow, maybe even more so than all the hours I spent trying to coordinate with the group. The same applies outside of the woods. Taking a moment to sit out on a hill and sing to myself in front of a lake, or to leave the Netflix binge to drive to Cronkite to take photos on my own are more satisfying than shielding myself away from the world when no one’s around. I have found that I come back from those experiences feeling inspired and more true to myself because I’m not under the influence of how my peers view me, or how I feel they do. It is hard to be fully comfortable with yourself when the only version you know of yourself is the person you are around other people.

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I’m not saying to isolate yourself entirely in order to find out who you really are. Human connection is an essential part of growing as a person. Especially to my fellow seniors, take these last few weeks of high school to make long-lasting  memories. However, it’s still important to find alone time. Everyone needs a little room to breathe and come to terms with who they are. And in the end, a better understanding of who I am has allowed me to create better relationships with the people around me. So when you do find those spare moments, take a moment to learn something new about yourself. Strive to be introspective. Enjoy your own company.

My high school experience has always been about discovering who I am. I came in as a freshman expecting to understand my entire persona by the time I was a senior. But that is just not the case. I don’t fully understand who I am, and maybe I never truly will. But I believe that the time I’ve spent on my own—allowing myself to be me without outside influences—has given me at least a better understanding. So next time you find yourself bored because no one’s around, I urge you to go outside. Drive to the beach, go on a walk, eat out. Take yourself on an adventure.

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About the Contributor
Carolyn French, Author