This article was originally written for Post Grad Survival Guide.
In a recent post, I wrote something that I want to elaborate on:
We can be independent in a way that is about accepting ourselves, not rejecting others.
In Hunger, Hamsun Knut’s deeply disturbing semi-autobiographical novel, a lonely young writer wanders the streets of 19th century Oslo.
His days are split into two parts: solitude and interactions.
Alone, he talks to himself, makes grand plans for his future, and lauds his own classy intellect — even as he sinks into the depths of poverty.
Sat in parks or cemeteries, he writes articles, plays and essays. Each seems like the greatest thing ever written and he’s sure it will make him rich. His writing fills him with tremendous self-confidence.
But that confidence rarely survives even the briefest conversation. Each time he talks to someone, anyone — shopkeepers, a pawnbroker, old men, landladies, the police, editors — it ends the same way.
He lies compulsively, attempts to portray himself as some important figure, is ashamed of his visible poverty, and grows irrationally angry at nothing.
Afterwards, he’s furious at himself for behaving that way. And yet he can’t stop. His life grows lonelier and lonelier as he forces himself to stop needing the presence of other people.
Independence can be both healthy and unhealthy.
Unhealthy independence is based on rejecting other people out of contempt(sometimes) or fear (more often.) You want to be around people, but the whole thing is so painful that you decide not to bother.
You become independent out of necessity. For instance, you might walk yourself through grief because you don’t think other people can help. The difficulty of talking about it is greater than the potential comfort.
Healthy independence is based on accepting and understanding yourself.You are capable of enjoying time with people and content with your social life. Yet you’re also good at looking after yourself.
You’re independent by preference. So you’d walk yourself through grief because you know yourself, you’re good at self-care, and you know when to ask for help.
There’s a misconception that extremely independent people, especially if they’re also introverted, are a bit misanthropic, aloof and antisocial.
But for a lot of people, it’s fear, not hatred that’s the problem.
Although mercifully few people experience the same depths of insanity and despair as Hunger’s protagonist, that attitude to relationships can’t be uncommon.
People who struggle with being around people tend to have a defined comfort zone.
A small, specific comfort zone, easily ruined by the slightest change.Somewhere controllable where it’s possible to feel calm. Content. Human.
Outside of that comfort zone, everything is overwhelming. When you can’t handle people, the presence of another person (with a few exceptions) can actually feel like some kind of attack. It can feel like a threat.
This is not about fearing being judged.
If your sense of self is fragile, you feel like other people could completely shatter you.
Hunger’s protagonist (and I wish he had a name because using that word gives me flashbacks to English Lit essays) feels infuriated after every conversation because the person he comes across to others is not who he wants to be. And the person others see us as is, after all, who we are to the world.
At the end of the book, just as he reaches the point of total solitude and disconnection from the world, he steps onto a boat and sails off into the future. It is an act of self-preservation, perhaps the first in the book. He stops rejecting and starts accepting. Because that’s what true independence is about.
(Neither has anything to do with introversion or extroversion, by the way. It’s perfectly possible to be an unhealthily independent introvert or a healthily independent extrovert. Or even a non-independent introvert or an independent extrovert. Damn, that was the most millennial paragraph I’ve ever written.)