“Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
— Paul Tillich, German Philosopher
For most of the past three years, I have traveled the world on my own and, yes, some days I wake up dreading another day alone. I am a social person. I miss my family and friends at home, and I love traveling as a team. So why do I keep traveling the world alone?
To begin with, there is simple math. I don’t have enough peripatetic people in my life to have a travel partner more than occasionally.
And while I don’t think I would ever turn down an offer to have a travel buddy, I also love traveling alone. When I can’t rely on easy companionship (or an annoying travel partner), I have a different experience. In addition to enjoying the art and museums and food, I am more likely to see the messier world, the one that most people live everyday. It’s easier to connect with local people, visit places most travelers don’t see, and slow down.
Most of the people in the world are good and they lead hard lives. Meeting a few of them has given me the sense that I am part of a family of 7 billion people and, when I think of myself that way, I love what happens. I am more comfortable with people I don’t understand. People seem to be looking out for me. I don’t worry about vendors “ripping me off” — I know they are just trying to feed their kids. And for every tip I have left in a country that “isn’t a tipping culture,” I have received discounts I didn’t ask for, a lot of smiles I didn’t deserve, and a long list of kind gestures.
And there’s another important reason to travel alone.
When we are alone, we have to confront the truth about who we are. Like most privileged Americans, I have had a self-image that has been artificially propped up with titles (administrative law judge), roles (competent single mother) and illusions (I worked hard so I deserve it). Traveling alone challenges our reliance on social status and nice clothes to compensate for our insecurities. I am reminded every day that I didn’t earn it so much as I was born to it — and the test of who I am is not related to the privileges I inherited, but how I deploy my privileges. Simply stated, being alone in the big world strips away a lot of the stuff that fluffs up our American egos.
For these reasons and contrary to my expectation, traveling alone has actually made me more insecure. Sometimes I am downright disoriented. Why would I do that to myself? Why would anyone? I dunno. Maybe it’s like tearing out a nicely-painted wall to cut out the dry rot. And, for now at least, existential insecurity is the price of freedom and feeling a connection to something bigger.
One of these days, I will trade in my freedom for the comforts of my California home. In the meantime, I will thank my lucky stars for the gifts of my travels, whether I am alone or with people who share my passion for learning about the world.