Watching an episode of Sex and the City on a snowy evening this past January, I was struck by the profoundly shallow existential discomfort of New York columnist Carrie Bradshaw. The episode opened with Carrie and her friend Samantha preparing for the launch of Carrie's new book, a collection of her columns on sex and the city. The episode—Plus One is the Loneliest Number—presents a Carrie who is profoundly disheartened by her status as a single girl in the city. I was intrigued.
When the day of the launch finally came, Carrie was not happy. Her despair wasn’t a result of a recent heartbreak—it was merely the result of rejection by a cute writer who wasn’t interested in dating her. Carrie’s disappointment colored her entire celebration that evening. She is essentially being paid to be single in the city. Perhaps the glamour of being single over 35 and having sex on-demand in New York City finally faded.
What struck me profoundly was that this seemingly strong, modern, independent woman was so affected by the unavailability of a fleeting amorous attraction! A guy that she simply met in passing, in her editor’s office. She happened to go to Central Park with him. She had a simple conversation with him. She was attracted to him. She subsequently discovered he was taken. Story over. Right?
Wrong. She shared a connection, a connection that, in her mind, led to an obligation. Apparently, when you conversationally hit it off with a guy, and there is some semblance of attraction, the guy owes it to the woman to be 100 percent honest, to dole out the secrets of his heart. Whether he is in relationships are not, or is interested in a relationship with you, or not. The lunchtime discussion between Carrie and her girlfriends bordered on the ridiculous- how can you consider a guy a “jerk” simply for not stating his relationship status within the first five minutes of conversation? Can’t we value the objective goodness of a person’s conversational worth apart from his romantic availability?
Samantha’s comments were the only semblance of a rational, reasonable response to the situation. She said that she hates it when men feel the need to announce their relationship status right away in conversation. The undercurrent of this is the sense of great expectations that come from virtually every interaction with the male specimen. Instead of allowing life to happen, conversations to flow, and men to drift in and out without jumping in and out of bed with her, Carrie feels the need to take control of every situation. Reading too far into everything and acting upon every impulse leaves her single at 35 and profoundly disappointed in herself.
This apparently ephemeral interaction with a fellow writer was apparently significant enough to induce in Carrie an existential crisis of sorts, to reevaluate her comfort level with her singleness. All of us need a period of “loneness,” for this is the period that prepares us for togetherness. Would you want to be with someone who wasn’t comfortable in his loneness? Who sought to escape his loneness and his solitude and dive immediately into togetherness so that he can escape the potential vulnerability of loneness, or worse, open himself up for the feeling of loneliness?
To do any great relationship justice, one must become comfortable in one’s loneness. This is solitude. For solitude presupposes a person. An individual, unique person, with a whole, singular, complex and complicated universe to share with another. What joy and sacrifice exists in sacrificing one’s solitude, or entrusting one’s solitude to another, that doesn’t include this level of complexity? The Sex in the City episode reminds me of a recent re-discovery of poet Ranier Maria Rilke’s work, Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke poses a distinction between “loneness” and “loneliness.” The first is a sense of being, borne of solitude; the second is born of a poverty of self. “One is alone,” Rilke writes; “all companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes.” Samantha grapples with this sense of loneliness in the aforementioned episode, brought about by an existential boredom with bad scallops and basic bachelors. It seem that the entire series consists in a flight from feeling and from loneliness:
“How should they,” Rilke writes, “who have already flung themselves together and no longer mark off and distinguish themselves from each other, who therefore no longer possess anything of their own selves, be able to find a way out of themselves, out of the depth of their already shattered solitude?”
Carrie is uncomfortable with herself. This is likely why many if not all of her relationships have failed. Those failed relationships share one variable in common: her. Only when you’re truly comfortable with yourself, when you’re truly okay being alone, can you be open to a full giving of yourself to another. If you wouldn’t want to be alone with yourself, why would anyone else? If you’re preoccupied searching for someone to share your life with you, you are unable to fill up your cup of life in preparation for a truly great love down the road. The concluding line from Love Story by David Brooks has remained with me for the past year: “I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.” For, as Rilke writes, “The more one is, the richer is all that one experiences. And whoever wants to have a deep love in his life must collect and save for it and gather honey.” One can’t in earnest collect and save for it if one is in a constant state of lack, endlessly seeking to fill a void in the human heart. Rilke writes:
I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.
In recent years, I’ve discovered that I’m much happier alone and satisfied than taken and unsatisfied. I believe I inherited this tendency from my grandmother. We’ve had countless conversations about relationships of all kinds. In her old age, she finds retirement quite fulfilling. She is never lonely. She relishes her solitude. She is profoundly self-possessed, independent, and interesting. Although she had no man with whom to grow old, she is perfectly content with her life. Perhaps I am uniquely blessed to have the models of women that I have to draw upon for inspiration. Perhaps Carrie didn’t have a grandmother like mine to remind her that it’s better to be lone and unmarried than married to the wrong person. Perhaps she doesn’t have a mother to teach her that waiting is better than settling. Having watched the entire Sex and the City series more than once, I came to discover the ultimate thematic element that ties together the romantic lives of all four women: settling.
Carrie settles on being the mistress of Mr. Big. Although Carrie and Big eventually settle on a marriage, they do so only because of financial consideration and the practicalities of property ownership. Miranda settles on casual sex with a bartender that resulted out of boredom, and later in the show, settles on marrying him when he becomes the father of her baby. Samantha settles on the best option in the hotel bar for no-strings-attached sex each night. That is, until she falls in love and ends up broken-hearted because her go-to man—a high-powered hotel magnate—can’t settle on loving one person, and cheats on her. Charlotte is in search of true love and waits for her Prince Charming—even waiting until her wedding night to make love to her husband. But when that marriage ultimately fails, even Charlotte finds herself settling. She has rebound sex with her divorce lawyer, Harry, which leads her to fall in love, and convert to Judaism in order to marry him.
Today’s dating culture can be summarized in one word: settling. It seems that settling is the scourge on dating in the modern era. Women across America are simply settling. We are settling for text messages instead of phone calls, for “talking” rather than intentional dating, for mere “hang-outs” instead of romantic dates, and for a sexual rendezvous instead of an authentic courtship. Women set the standard by which men are to treat them. Both men and women ought to wait patiently—while embracing our loneness instead of identifying it with loneliness—for waiting is indeed better than settling. Once we do eventually find the person we are called to love uniquely, we need to recognize that we are still profoundly separate. Rilke writes:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!
We mustn’t fling ourselves at others in an attempt to find ourselves. It is only through becoming fully present in our seasons of loneness and solitude will we discover our true self. When we do find what Dante describes as a “love that moves the sun and other stars,” we still need to recognize the distance between us and our beloved, to respect the enduring solitude of the other. While we may become wounded by love, we are not mere “victims” of passion in an authentic loving relationship. Love is not a liaison from loneliness; love is a choice we make each day, to emerge from our solitude and open ourselves up for communion with another. For it is only though the gift of self that we find our true selves. “Man and woman are united in a unique communion,” philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand writes, “where they give themselves to one another in the deepest sense of the word and belong to each other in an ultimate interpenetration of their souls.” If we are truly seeking intellectual, emotional, and spiritual communion, we must first cultivate a sense of self in solitude as we prepare for such a significant encounter with another person.