After the Crash

On independence and loneliness in terrifying times.

“We just heard that a car has mounted the pavement and collided with several pedestrians near the Natural History Museum. You may wish to text your loved ones and let them know you’re okay.”

As the conference organisers for a Women in Technology event on Saturday 7 October made this announcement, feelings swirled around in my mind like leaves caught in an eddy. First, the poignant thought that we’d only just been hearing a talk on the rise of intolerance online and offline in the last year, and now here was yet another violent incident in London, the city I’ve chosen to make my home. Grief that these incidents have become just another part of life; guilt that I’m thinking about the impact on myself and my feelings rather than putting my focus on those directly affected by this. Then, a rational check on my assumption that this event had anything to do with hate or deliberately inciting fear. (The Metropolitan Police have subsequently confirmed this is being treated as a road traffic accident rather than a terrorist incident.) 

And finally, the deep and silent void muffling all other thoughts: no one in my personal circle had any idea where I was going this morning. Not a single person hearing this news would have the faintest idea that I might be nearby.

‘Independent’ is one way to describe the life I’ve built for myself. I share a flat with a cordial but not close housemate. I have dear friends who rush to my aid when I’m in need--earlier this year my handbag containing every item of value including my house keys, phone, and ID was stolen. Within an hour, friends helped me to call the police, locksmith, and other important institutions and loaned me everything I needed to get back on my feet. But we don’t keep tabs on each others’ whereabouts daily. All my family is in America. I’m close to my parents but I don’t give them my coordinates (nor would they expect it of me.)

Introvert that I am, I can happily go for days without speaking to a single person. Typically for these binges of solitude I cocoon in my flat but occasionally I sneak off for a solo adventure. The thought that nobody knows where I am, that I am utterly alone to follow my whim with no compromises or expectations, is a thrilling prospect. When I am totally alone I relish the feeling that there is not one person on the face of the earth who can tell me that they wish I were doing something else. This gives me a great sense of autonomy--it’s easy to be a Nietzchean ubermensch when there’s no one around to contradict you. Granted, my wild desires tend to run towards sleeping late or an impulsive extra dessert rather than, say, invading Poland. But in my solitude there is no judgement of even these minor acts of rebellion. In my solitude, these are not rebellions at all.

How could I want someone to know where I am every single second of the day? Am I a child to be supervised? Do I need permission to spend my time as I wish? If I gave up my solitude wouldn’t I be suffocated by the endless panopticon, the sense of always being monitored? Is this what closeness really means, that your time is no longer yours alone? I grow restless just thinking about it. No, if that's what intimacy required it would be insupportable.

But there is another face to this coin of independence, my much-valued autonomy. As I sat listening to the announcement about an incident of unknown magnitude around the corner, as helicopters buzzed overhead and emergency vehicles raced by our auditorium, as conference attendees furtively checked our phones for news of nearby museums and streets being evacuated, I felt an abiding sense of loneliness.

Alone doesn’t have to mean lonely. But after choosing to spend a large portion of my life feeling self-sufficient in my aloneness--suddenly I felt lonely in the middle of a crowd.

Caitlin McDonald
Caitlin McDonald

Award-winning scholar & writer on digital communities, data science, and dance. Tweets @caitiewrites. Holds PhD in suitably unexpected & obscure subject. Very tall. Frequently a bit silly.

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After the Crash