Alone Time

One of our fish died over the weekend. It was a familiar scenario. Over the past decade, I’ve plunked down a tiny fortune at the local pet store. Our little tank has been home to sleek danios, shimmery neon tetras, and a pair of delightful, whiskered cory catfish that we nicknamed The Professors.

While I’m no expert, I clean the tank regularly and use a beneficial bacteria solution as instructed by the pet store. I even brought a water sample in for testing, and nothing was amiss. Still, the fish never seem to last long.

The latest residents, cherry barbs, started out as a school of three and have now dwindled to one. This weekend, after retrieving its lifeless tankmate and humming a quiet rendition of “Taps,” I watched the remaining occupant glide through the water, its golden fins swishing aimlessly. I wondered how it would adjust to the newfound solitude.

It seems silly to contemplate the emotional life of a fish, but research shows they form social bonds and can feel pain, fear, and a range of other emotions. And the tank looked awfully empty.

“What do you think? Should we get another fish?” I asked my youngest daughter.

Her answer was swift. “No. It’s okay to be alone.”

It’s okay to be alone. It wasn’t a typical sentiment for a teenager. (Admittedly, my daughter trends more toward an introverted personality — much like her mother!)

Yes, it’s certainly okay to be alone. But it’s not always easy to be, particularly if you’re a kid who’s stuck in school for a lot of your waking hours.

Sometimes I forget how prickly that time was. I was never one of the popular kids. In high school, my main activities were practicing with the marching band, studying, and occasionally going to late-night movies with the same two girls. Looking back, I know I’m lucky that we remained friends all those years, because I never would have made it as a lone wolf.

But now? I feel differently. I don’t mind alone time. I’m comfortable showing up to events where I don’t know a soul. I no longer feel the pressure to mingle and make the right impression on everyone. At this point in my life, I don’t define my worth by how many people like me, or how many friends I have. Being an adult has its perks.

I feel for all the kids riding the rollercoaster of hot-and-cold friendships, cliques, and shifting social circles. In many ways, Generation X had it easier: We were spared from the pressures of smartphones, TikTok, and Insta-everything. Yes, FOMO still existed, but less intensely. If you spent a Saturday night watching Beverly Hills, 90210 on the couch, at least you couldn’t see photos of seemingly everyone else in your grade having the time of their lives.

Being alone can feel like swimming in circles through an empty tank, with nothing but your own thoughts to keep you company. It’s hard to know whether you’re headed in the right direction when no one else is doing the same. It can be scary and disorienting. And it’s not always fun.

But it is okay.

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