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Belonging in Solitude

a personal account

by Donald Peterson

This is a very personal account based on my own experiences. I certainly would never suggest it’s the same for everyone but if you can get anything out of reading this that’s fantastic. I most certainly don't want your sympathy. I'm just sharing in the hope that my experience may help others. Traditionally men aren't supposed to write about their deep feelings. It’s supposed to be women’s exclusive territory. Well to hell with all that sexist nonsense. Ridicule if you like, I'm long past caring.

I have spent my entire life (well most of it, it’s not quite over yet) torn between the need to belong and the need for solitude. The latter has certainly had the upper hand since my school days half a century ago. This has been especially true of the last 9 years spent in delicious solitude alone on my canal boat, cruising the system like a true nomad. But there have been moments of weakness when I've reached out for love, when I've tried to belong like a normal person.

I've managed to squeeze three legal marriages into my 68 years and a few informal live-in relationships too. So my need to belong is still in there somewhere.

I don’t suppose many of you have ever heard of the West Midlands folk singer Harvey Andrews. Years ago he wrote a very emotional song called Mallard in which he describes a touching friendship between a young boy and a wild duck on a city pond. Some rough boys in the town killed the mallard for ‘fun’ and the song portrays how this sensitive lad felt. “When somebody smashes the love that you offer there's less you can feel and less you can give.”

So is the dominance of the need for solitude over the need for love, nature or nurture? In other words, is it learnt? And why am I thinking about this now? Why indeed? The fact is I’ve just been asked this question under rather unusual circumstances. Andrews was partly wrong, at least as much as it applies to me. Yes three wives and several other ladies have smashed the love that I offered, each in their own different way. That's true, and yes there is now much less I can give, but it hasn't affected my ability to feel very, very deeply.

So back to the unusual circumstances. There is a very lovely lady who I have extremely deep feelings for. We met about seven years ago and haven't seen each other for the last five, until last Friday when she came to visit …. with her current gentleman. It was he who asked me that question. Very strange circumstances indeed I'm sure you'll agree. No blame, no recriminations and I'm really glad she came. It was lovely to see her and I hope she won't leave it five years until next time. But it did open up some old wounds and it did remind me how much I do still love her, even after five years of abstinence.

After she departed I felt more empty, more hollow inside, than I had in many years. But it was meant to happen that way because it sent me on another mission of deep soul-searching, which I am sharing with you now in the hope that my experience may help someone else treading a dark road.

There is another song from my youth. I don't recall what it was called or who sung it. I don't even remember all the words. All I remember from it is “I have hiked a hundred highways and never found a home.”

That struck a chord with me somehow. I must have been about sixteen or seventeen and had recently set myself free from my parental home. As a kid one’s home should be a place of belonging, a place you can always go for advice and comfort, a place where you can always have a hug. Unfortunately mine wasn't quite like that. Dad was great but my mother was battling with her own demons. I'm not complaining, that's just the way it was. I was extremely privileged compared with some other kids. But one evening, without planning anything, I just snapped. I packed a bag, slung it on the back of my motorbike and never went back. So there I was, relishing the freedom I had been yearning for for years, and that song came on the radio. It's hardly surprising it became the anthem for my life.

My problem with belonging goes back way before that of course. I was never very good at football and was always the last one chosen for a team. I lost count of the number of times I heard some disgruntled team captain moan to the teacher “Oh no Sir, not Cox, we don't want Cox”.

Is it any wonder I grew up believing that belonging was for others, not for me? Belonging has to be rooted in trust and I had none. And that can be traced back to an experience I had when I was three. One of my kidneys failed and I was rushed into hospital. Who here remembers what hospitals were like in 1955? Three tone brown walls, huge echoing wards and the constant smell of disinfectant. It wasn't even my local hospital. I had been sent to a specialist unit too far from home for my parents to visit every day. Here I was, a three year old kid in this huge, bleak, echoey ward, watching the door at visiting time as the parents streamed through. “Are my parents there? Are my parents there? No not today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps”.

Of course I understand the logistics involved for my parents. I understand now, as an adult, but I sure as hell didn't understand then, at three. At three I just learnt that people can't be trusted so don't put your trust in them. That became my belief and the funny thing about beliefs is our subconscious minds work tirelessly to make us act in such a way that whatever we believe either comes true or appears to be true. Beliefs are self-fulfilling prophecies. So did I piss off my mum in order to make it hard for her to show me affection? Probably. I wasn't doing it consciously of course and I would have had no idea what I was doing. Was I useless at football for the same reason? Probably. Otherwise my belief would have been disproved and that would never do.

And what about my wives and girlfriends? Same deal. I can see now, looking back, how I sabotaged every relationship although in some cases I can see how their unresourceful beliefs were playing out too. And what about the relationships that never came to anything like the lady who visited me last week? Well that's another aspect of beliefs. Sometimes when you think you are unlovable or you have learnt from bitter experience that relationships always end painfully, you focus all your love on a person who, subconsciously, you know will never feel the same way about you. Your subconscious is just trying to keep you safe. Little does it understand the harm it is causing.

So nature or nurture? I wasn't sure how this would work out when I started but I think I've demonstrated, at least in my own case, that belonging is natural and the need for excessive solitude is a learned response to early trauma. So what about my beautiful friend? Should I tell her to stay out of my life and stop tormenting me? Absolutely not. These are my demons and I need to face them. Running from them would only move the problem down the road. Thinking about it logically, my beautiful friend is the perfect home for my affections because she's safe. She will never return my affections, she has another man looking after her day to day, and she will never try to deprive me of my precious solitude. A match made in heaven. I am very grateful that she is still in my life if only for the occasional telephone chat and even more occasional visit. As Richard Bach wrote in Illusions “Solitude is wonderful once you get used to it but break it, even briefly, and you have to start getting used to it all over again”. Well I will very soon be used to it again. The hole in my heart will soon callus over again. All is as it should be. I truly do belong in solitude.

What is your opinion on this issue? Do you enjoy your own company or do you like to be in the company of others? Can you empathize with donald or do you think he is being a jerk? Please do join in the conversation.

In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
by Michael Harris

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