power in words and pictures

The Power, the Joy, and the Fear of Anonymity

The Power, the Joy, and the Fear of Anonymity

“She’d never felt more alone, even as hundreds of people walked by. No one recognized her, and she began to treasure her anonymity as a gift.” ― Jamie Ford, Songs of Willow Frost

Airports are busy, the roads are full, the restaurants are filled with tables of people.  Sitting quietly on a bench, he watched as the world passed him by, as if unaware of his presence. How was it that in all of the faces of all of the people, he knew no one and no one knew him? He smiled and breathed a deep breath. Here, in a place not so far from home, he was able to just be himself — whomever he saw himself being.  No expectations, no judgments. Yes, being alone is sometimes lonely, but sometimes, as Ford described, anonymity is a gift to be treasured.

One of the things I have always embraced is the truth that no matter how large a city is, we can still carve out a small community for ourselves. Finding places to do business on a regular basis, whether it is stopping for a cup of coffee, being a regular visitor to a library or bookstore, or simply taking time to know your mail person — we never have to feel like a city is too big or lonely. On the other hand, growing up with a mother who tried to make a mid-size town more personal, my children craved anonymity. Everywhere they went, they felt as if they could never escape people who knew me and knew they were mine.  Hard to get away with much mischief as a kid.

For adults, it isn’t much different.  We might have worked hard to create a network of business and personal contacts, but cutting someone off in traffic or snapping at the clerk checking us out at the store means we risk being seen negatively by someone we know.  Bigger errors might land us in the newspaper, where our reputation is decidedly changed by unforgiving so-called friends and strangers.  Hard to get away with anything as a kid or an adult in the community we’ve worked to create, and pretty soon it is because we know people that we are lonely even though we aren’t alone, and the gift of anonymity hasn’t crossed our radar.

Being alone can be scary, and it can be lonely. Sometimes, though, it can be exhilarating. Spending a summer with a relative in another town, I knew no one else there.  Everywhere I went, I was a stranger.  I was friendly to folks and even made a few friends with whom I still stay in contact, but there were really no expectations placed on me by anyone I met.  It was delightful.  Going to a place where no one knows me has become a respite of sorts.  No committees, no names to have slipped my mind, and a few relationships that develop enough to have a friendly face and sometimes honest conversation with while I read a book or work on some project I’ve brought with me.  When anonymity is a choice, it’s a gift.

Look around. You have friends of every age and stage. Some of them want to be anonymous and others are alone and lonely (which are you?). Be on the lookout for people who are unemployed, elderly, relocated without friends or family, or newly single.  Rule number one, though: do not use a lonely friend to be your go-to when you have nothing else going on.  Ask them to join your family for dinner, invite them to go with you when you’ll be with other friends, giving them the opportunity to meet other people. You and I might treasure our anonymity, but there are times we must be willing to share some of our time helping others. Reach out to a friend today, whether you are the lonely one or not. Someone needs you.

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