Subway commute: being alone together

Photo by allenran917 Photo by allenran917

The morning subway commute. All of the people. The sauna. Everyone panicked: Will we get there in time? Others half-asleep. So many with their headphones on. What are they listening to? Does it make it better? If so, with what magic?

To be alone in a sea of people. Jonathan Franzen wrote a book, How to Be Alone. Susan Cain is growing a media enterprise all about helping introverts cope (and thrive). For Nietzche, hell is other people. For Ginsberg, “I write poetry because I suffer confusion not knowing what other people think.”

Do we need to know? Why does it eat away at us when we don’t?

We hope that by understanding other people we will understand ourselves. We are the great unknown.

After ten years of working from home, going back to an office is simultaneously energizing and exhausting. I like having somewhere to go, somewhere to be. Something to do.

I don’t mind meetings. I enjoy the energy exchange with other people, when they are present, and we have a constructive conversation, not complaining or gossiping or half-looking at our computers.

Then there is the rest. The smiling and the background hum of talking, talking, all day long. Thoughts turn to a dark room where my senses get a break. Where things feel real.

Why does being with other people, in an office, feel so unreal? It feels better, easier, on this subway car. Everyone looks tired if they’re tired. If they don’t want to talk, they have their headphones on. Heads down, together. It feels like the few bubbly ones who are talking are performing for each other.

It is hard enough to be authentic with yourself, let alone with another person. Let alone with other people all. day. long.

By contrast, being alone together on the subway is relaxed. I find it comforting. New Yorkers have always been kind to me on public transport, offering me a seat when I was pregnant or when we have our daughter with us. I feel a sense of genuine shared humanity. (Except when some asshole plays their music too loud.)

I know some people whose disposition is to prefer human interaction. For them it’s not so complicated.

I am not wired that way. A conversation, except with very few people, takes something out of me. It needs to be book-ended with so much solitude. Writing. Meditation.

I think about the state of our world, and wonder if the key to figuring out so many of our problems is learning how to be alone together, while still loving each other. Like the people on this subway car.

“How do you know they love each other?” Because it feels like they do. And that is enough.

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