We’re spending a few days on business
in a town where we know no one.
It’s dinner time and feeling claustrophobic in our hotel room.
We wander the main streets, looking for a place to eat.
The bars and restaurants are filled with loving couples
and animated groups of friends.
We gingerly enter a dinner,
but as we take in the warmth and convivial atmosphere
we’re struck by acute self-consicenceness.
We blush crimson and clumsily turned to leave
before an approaching waiter has had the chance to offer us a seat.
We eventually find a dried-out sandwich at the station kiosk
which we eat furtively on a park bench near some loitering pigeons.
Eating alone in public
can be one of the great hurdles of psychological life.
It can be an exceptional trial because
because it forces us to wrestle with a set of thoughts
that for most of our lives
we successfully push to the back of consciousness:
that we are in essence an unacceptable being
tainted almost from birth, an outcast
non specifically diseased, unattractive to others
an object of quiet ridicule or open mockery
undeserving of love and sinful to the core.
We may not have this explicit thesis in mind as we decline to sit down by ourselves
but the scale of our embarrassment speaks
speaks of a latent suspicion of our own being.
How lovable we can feel as adults
is in large measure the result of how we’ve been looked after
by a few significant figures in childhood.
No one is born with a capacity to love and enjoy themselves on their own.
We learn to soothe and care for ourselves
by first experiencing the tender gaze of someone else.
And then internalizing their reassurance and kindness
replaying it to ourselves in isolated circumstances down the years.
The lucky ones among us those with no compunction about ordering a meal at a table for one
must somewhere in the distant past have grown secure through others’ admiration.
By which we now ward off suspicions that the head waiter is sniggering
and the couple in the corner are teasing us.
We, who were perhaps at that time not larger than a pillow
will lend a powerful sense that we had a right to exist
that we were an asset to the world that others should be pleased to see us.
All of which means that now even when the caregivers are long gone
the charge of love we imbibed
lends us an impression that the laughter from the next table is innocent
and that we deserve to be brought another basket of bread and the evening paper.
But, the less fortunate among us have no such emotional blanket.
Whatever our accomplishments or status
we’re never far from a sense that everyone is mocking
and would have good reason to try and harm us.
We need, with a conscious effort, to do what others have learnt automatically.
One side of the mind needs to comfort the other.
Must make the reassuring noises we never natively received.
Must soothe us because no one else ever did.
Although we’re on our own in the restaurant at the moment,
we must strive to hold onto a picture of the rest of our lives.
Two days ago, we were laughing with our friends
of whom we do have some great examples.
Tomorrow, we’ll be in an intense discussion with some colleagues.
We have been loved and held tightly in other’s arms before.
We’re on our own right now but we’re not social outcasts after all.
We should remember along the way
how little anyone ever thinks of us in a best possible sense.
Everyone is, for the most part, gloriously indifferent to everyone else.
The person cracking a joke with a group of friends
has not rerouted their evening to try and mock us.
The attractive individual deep in conversation with a companion
maybe talking about how lost they are in their new job.
They aren’t speculating on how isolated or ugly we are.
Those are voices in our heads not theirs.
We should take comfort to from the idea that there is at points
a distinct dignity and even grandeur to being an outsider.
To not always being part of the pack
to taking time to step outside the normal social flow
in order to consider humanity from an oblique, solitary angle.
The temporarily friendless and isolated person has privileges and the possibility for insights
denied to those always surrounded by the easy chatter of their acquaintances.
The great champion of the lonely diner, the American painter Edward Hopper
knew how to lend appropriate prestige to those who are on the outside.
Who can nurture ideas not sanctioned by the crowd
whose loneliness deepens their soul and may make others long for their friendship.
The central figure in “Automat” is far from an object of pity.
She is a center of quiet depth and insight
we might yearn to sit with her
rather than feel sorry that she’s as yet on her own.
It is in the nature of the anxiety around eating alone
that we feel we’re the only ones to suffer from it.
We should take comfort in numbers.
There are many of us out there.
And those of us who are timid in this field are not wretched or pitiable.
We’re just taking time to contemplate things from the outside for a while.
And we will, in the process, be readying ourselves
for the deepest kinds of friendship and self-knowledge when these come along.
Our Perspective Cards feature tools for a wiser karma perspective on life.
They help to restore calm and clarity even during difficult times.