Well, I'm apparently now part of a new demographic. Actually, we're all a part of some demographic or another, depending on how creative the demographers are. But I'm apparently part of a new demographic that's increasingly becoming a part of the national zeitgeist.
Last night, I saw Bill Maher interview NYU Professor Eric Klinenberg on HBO's Real Time, and then this morning I read a review in The New Yorker of Dr. Klinenberg's new book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. Recent demographic data indicated that 31 million Americans now live alone, up from 4 million in 1950, and nearly a third of all households have just one resident. This is due, in part, to some other social trends - half of all marriages are now anticipated to end in divorce, and people are getting married later (the average age of first marriage for men is 28). I live alone and am a part of that demographic explored by Dr. Klinenberg.
Growing up, I can remember only one single-resident household in our suburban neighborhood. He seemed an eccentric, an outsider, and I understood that my parents didn't encourage me to spend much time in his yard or house - there was no telling what manner of deviant lifestyle such a person might be living. Many, many years later, I remember being mildly annoyed to learn that someone had estimated the size of Atlanta's gay population by culling from the census data the number of unmarried men living alone, and assuming that number equaled the gay population. That number also included me, and I took this statistical laziness for an indication of how society at large might have viewed me.
Those days when one could shun the lone individual choosing to live alone, or make sweeping generalizations about that percentage of the population, are apparently over. Dr. Klinenberg's book suggests that many young people are embracing the personal freedom found in living alone, while many mature persons find that living alone provides "restorative solitude."
Those of us who live by ourselves are light on our feet and are able to move as the job market demands (unless we're saddled with an upside-down mortgage). Those of us who live by ourselves are flexible with our time (we don't have meals to be home for). We tend to be financially resilient, since no one else is relying on our income. The single life calls for vigilance on matters of self-preservation both large (financial autonomy) and small (household chores).
Far from being a mark of social abandonment, the solo life tends to be a path for moving ahead, for taking control of one's own circumstances. It's typically the single people living alone that contact friends and establish social networks, loiter in bookstores, work in cafes, take in roommates, or maintain on-line blogs. We don't sit on our sofas by ourselves for months on end staring at our coffee tables.
It's a lifestyle that I've come to embrace both for the personal freedom cherished by the young and for the "restorative solitude" appreciated by the older. I'm free to listen to the music of my choice - dance to my own drummer, as it were - and go out to hear the bands that I want without giving up on what I like or having to sit through shows I don't in the spirit of compromise. It is also conducive to a contemplative life of mediation. I don't have to demand a spouse or children to turn off their music or television while I practice my zazen. My mind is not distracted, beyond its own not inconsiderable distractions, by the conversations, enthusiasms, and concerns of others. It also forces me to be a caretaker of my own health, finances, and happiness, and I have no one else to blame but myself when any of these things go bad.
The Buddha encouraged his followers to renounce the householder life of the family and to join the sangha. Throughout the centuries, Buddhists have tended to live in monasteries (which isn't exactly living alone), or on mountaintops, in forests, or outside of the cities. In this modern 21st Century, I think the lifestyle of the urban monk, male or female, alone but in the middle of everything, might be the new ideal. It's my self identity. It's my choice.
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a friend who was terrified of the prospect of living alone. To him, such a life seemed to one of nothing but constant loneliness and sorrow. His aversion is so great that his particular suffering lies in his concern that his relationships are based on nothing more substantial than a fear of being single, and his great anxiety is that he may have made poor choices in partners and that his current relationship may eventually unravel, casting him into that dreaded state of loneliness. He could not conceive that I was single by choice, and suggested that my supposed contentment was based in self-delusion. He suggested that I don't know real human intimacy, as the only intimacy he understands is of a sexual nature. Yet he was the one with the suffering, the anxiety, and the dread. He was the one who felt cut off from his life.
I'm not saying that the single life doesn't have its own set of difficulties and challenges - all life has difficulties and challenges. I worry what would happen if I fall from a ladder while cleaning the gutters or if I have a heart attack while in the bathtub - how long will the letters have to accumulate in my mailbox before someone comes to find me? Sometimes I miss the convenience of having someone present with whom to share a passing moment. But these difficulties and challenges do not include the quiet desperation of not being able to escape a loveless relationship, or the constant, wearing effort and tension of constant compromise and resignation that characterizes so many lives.