In the 1932 movie “Grand Hotel,” smoldering film star Greta Garbo exclaims repeatedly, “I want to be alone.” As the plot progresses, real-life reclusive actress begins a romantic relationship with a stranger to whom she had earlier proclaimed the need for solitude, thus guaranteeing that she would assuredly no longer be alone. The fictional character finds happiness only when she admits a secret desire to be anything but lonesome. Garbo herself came to resent the common belief that she preferred isolation to the company of other humans, claiming that she was only reading lines and not expressing a personal preference.
We good people often live the paradox. Certainly, those of us who are not blessed (or cursed) by a genetic predisposition to extroversion understand. While time engaged in the company of others is good, even necessary, the time we spend alone is restorative and, likewise, required for good health. The needed allotment is not consistent across all persons, or even the same in any one of us, from day to day or moment to moment. Something in us drives a longing for our own fortress of solitude, just as the same internal voice demands that we seek shared space.
In marriages, offices and crowded buses, we find ourselves pursuing intimacy while quietly hoping for independent identity. We alternate between striking up conversations and withdrawing, earbuds in place, into our own thoughts. How do we find the right balance? How do we give, and get, fully while still holding something back just for us? Is there a way to be simultaneously entirely engaged and fully autonomous? With differing personality needs, who decides the standard? It is another actress, Belgium-born Audrey Hepburn, who summed it up thusly: “I don’t want to be alone, I want to be left alone.”