14: Being Alone For The Last Third Of Your Life

The month of fear has started me thinking about my life. As these things sometimes do. I realised that I spend much of my life afraid, in tiny, almost insignificant, trivial little ways. I am afraid I’ll be late, or that my students or colleagues will expose me as a fraud. I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or forget something important. I’m afraid I neglect my friends, that I’m not grown-up enough, that I’m too grown up, that I’m too shy, too loud, drink too much, drink too little, eat the wrong things. But I also realised that these are a) pretty common anxieties so having them was not something to be afraid of; and that b) they never really get in the way of getting on with my life. Being consistently five or more minutes early for appointments or trains would be seen by some people as a virtue, not a failing. I also realised that these are all things which are more or less in my control: they’re things I can do something about. I can leave five minutes early to ensure I don’t miss my train.

What I don’t worry about are the big external things: I don’t fear terrorist attacks (although when i was at school the bomb attacks on London train stations did worry me, since both parents commuted to work through London Bridge and Victoria every day); I’m not afraid of crime beyond remembering to lock the door when I leave in the morning; I may despair over the state of the world, but I’m not afraid that it will destroy my life suddenly, brutally, horribly. (And I know I’ve been lucky in life, generally.) These are all things over which I can have no possible control, so somehow my anxious brain simply leaves them be. If my everyday fears seem like the products of a over-sensitive survival system, prodding me to do certain things, to not do others, these big fears seem slightly strange and out of proportion to me, and always have done. I’ve never been afraid of the end of the world.

There’s also a third category, I realised the other day. I fear for things which are in the control of people whom I care about. So I fear for the health of my friends. I worry about them. I’m afraid they will fall ill, live in pain, or discomfort, or even die before their time, leaving behind — not me in particular, since I know myself to be relatively stoical about things beyond my control — loved ones, family and friends who care about them. I fear these things because they could be sorted out. You can eat well, exercise a bit. Little things which can make you safer.

I’m not afraid of being alone for the last third of my life. Not just because I’m in a great relationship with someone I love very much, and I can’t imagine (or won’t imagine) that not being the case. (Perhaps I have no imagination: I’ve often wondered if that’s true, and I’ve always felt that both memory and dreams have a much stronger hold on me than imagination does.) But more because it seems so out of my control as to not be worth worrying about. It would after all depend on the actions of all the people you already know, and of all the people you might befriend or come to know in the future. (I assume of course that whoever came up with the suggestion meant ‘alone’ did not just mean ‘single’, without what we stupidly call a significant other, in the Sex In The City sense of ‘alone’ which really means having no-one with whom you can drop the hard ethics of friendship). I wouldn’t like to be in a nursing home for thirty years, with no-one coming to visit me, but one would live through it: that’s what people do. I’m certainly not going to spawn offspring simply as a safety net against future abandonment. Being alone would be sad. Being alone is sad. But scary? I’m not sure.