I saw the 1993 movie Indian Summer the other day, and one scene still haunts me. Alan Arkin takes Diane Lane, whose husband has been dead a year, to see a house on the lake. He tells her the owner died fifteen years previously and, abiding by the old guy’s wishes, he dropped the guy’s body in the center of the lake. The guy’s wife continued to live in the house, and fifteen years later, when she died, Arkin “buried” her next to her husband. Arkin say he should simply have dropped the wife in the lake when the husband died as a not very subtle way of telling Lane to get on with her life.
Oddly, the reinforcement of the idea that after a year we bereft are supposed to set aside our grief and get on with our life (get a guy, in other words) didn’t bother me as much as the implication that the old woman wasted her life by living at the lake alone.
Is living alone a waste? Not everyone gets to be with someone, and even those who do get to be with someone for a while don’t always get to live out their life with that person. So does that mean their lives are a waste? Not everyone is gifted with friends or has the gift of making friends. Does that mean the lives of the friendless are a waste? We’re told repeatedly in songs, movies, stories, poems, greeting cards, that love makes the world go round. But if love doesn’t come to you, does that mean you should just get off the world and let it go round without you?
If living alone is a waste, does that mean every minute you’re not with someone, anyone, you’re wasting your life? Of course not. So what is the break off point? It’s okay to be alone for a day or two? A week? A year? Is it better to be with someone you hate just so that you’re not alone? I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t either.
Maybe Arkin’s character thought that being isolated made the old woman’s life a waste. As long as her husband was alive, apparently living by the lake was okay, but when he died, what was she supposed to do — give up her cherished home, the clean air, closeness to nature for a dubious life in the city? And if she did move, what would keep her from being even more isolated? Some of the loneliest people are those who live in the midst of others.
Or maybe Arkin’s character assumed the woman was unhappy, though sadness isn’t a reason to think her life was worthless. Happiness itself doesn’t make life worthwhile — it only feels that way.
I don’t suppose this scene would have bothered me so much if I weren’t struggling with these questions in my own life. There is a good chance I will live out the rest of my life alone. That doesn’t mean — can’t mean — my life has no worth. It would be a pathetic state of affairs if being with someone is the only thing that makes life worthwhile.
Being is reason enough for living (which Alan Arkin’s character, the supposedly wise old Unca Lou should have known). Even if we are blessed with love and friendship, the truth still remains: our only obligation to life is to live the best we can for as long as we can — to simply “be.”
Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”
October 10, 2012 at 3:32 pm
A series of good points, Pat. Though I myself would like more friends, or would at least like to see the friends I have more often, I too have often wondered if I will live alone once I am older. I hope not, but who ever knows just what fate has in store for them? This is why contentment and happiness are not the same things. Happiness and joy come and go, but contentment is something that anyone can aspire to.
October 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm
I guess all we can do is enjoy the unaloneness while we have it, and then after ward deal with the loneliness as best we can.
October 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm
I think you are right that one does not have to be with someone (a significant other) in order to not be wasting life. Being a romantic, myself, I always like to see people matched up, but it isn’t necessary and it’s not for everyone.
October 11, 2012 at 8:11 pm
I know a lot of people who would like to be matched up, but it isn’t happening. It would be a double punishment if being alone is wasting their life, especially since it isn’t by choice.
October 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm
Oh, definitely not wasted. There is so much else to experience and so much else to do besides have a romantic relationship.
October 17, 2012 at 5:36 pm
Thank you for that reminder. Ours is such a coupled world, it’s hard to believe at times there is another way to live.
October 12, 2012 at 12:02 am
I suppose it depends how disconnected she was don’t you think? I certainly dont think there’s anything wrong with being single…with honoring her husband by staying by the lake but having known a few folk completely cut off from any interaction with anybody I feel this is very unhealthy. We humans need each other. Through relating, through giving and recieving I think our life takes on meaning.
October 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm
Leesis, you make good points and have given me something to think about. I guess in my case, I’ll have to make sure I don’t end up as a hermit, which seems to be my tendency.