Single — And Being Okay With It

Gary C. Harrell
8 min readAug 17, 2023

Earlier this week, my mother said something that shocked me. In her normal, loving tone, she uttered, “I really wish you had someone.” Yeah — someone, as in a life partner. That was what she meant, and it was a sentence that I honestly never expected from her. But what she also went further to say left me even more flummoxed. My mother added: “I know that you are doing okay, but I just think your life would be better if you had someone in it […] I just never thought I’d have to worry about you being alone.”

Ordinarily, I don’t do two things: (1) I don’t speak about my relationship status outside of my inner circle; and (2) unless I ask, I don’t give much consideration to other people’s opinions. After all, I reason that both of those things, particularly where my life is concerned, are potential distractions from the things that I am trying to accomplish . . . But these are not ordinary times, are they? And to those who know her, my mother is no ordinary person. So, her opinion does not get easily dismissed . . . Consequently, yes, I am publicly writing about this subject, albeit grudgingly, just to process my thoughts in the wake of her words . . . Grrr!

So, I do feel as though I should clarify some things as I start writing. Yes, as my mother pointed out, I am doing okay. In fact, my life is good. My health is quite fine; my work is showing great promise; and I have been in a season of “Peak Writing” (a.k.a. optimal creativity) since the early part of the pandemic. And while I have endured the unexpected losses of family members and friends, particularly over the last year or so, I am still very engaged in positive friendships and connections with a lot of people. So, no, I am not lonely.

Do most days end with only a cat-terrorist at my side? Perhaps. That does not mean that I have become the real-life caricature of a hermit. I am not withdrawing from the world. In fact, to the contrary, I believe I’ve just come to appreciate my peace.

[The cat-terrorist]

Over much of the week, as I contemplated the comments made by my mother, I kept returning to some of the lessons that I’ve learned and documented in journals over the years. Indeed, a few failed relationships can teach us things about ourselves and a bit about necessary expectations for the future. What I realized now is that, while other people, even my mother, might not understand it — Gary Harrell is in the best place he could be, right now. And the arrival at that place is due to what he’s learned over time.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned in recent years, for example, is that there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. The Canadian novelist Doug Coupland wrote, “The time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself.” From a journal entry, I will expound upon that notion:

Being alone and feeling lonely aren’t particularly the same thing. For starters, being alone with your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and frustrations is about finding contentment; and it can be essential for processing them and cultivating a more comprehensive and grounded outlook on life. After all, we can really use the clarity that comes as a result of those quiet moments of introspection […] But feeling lonely sucks. This feeling eats away at the veneer of our self-confidence, and it leaves us feeling isolated and unappreciated. To that end, we all need companionship — the connections that remind us that life is worth sharing. Human beings are social creatures, and companionship is an outlet for experiencing and appreciating this life. So necessary is this interaction that, well, we cling to tools like social media to maintain those connections. And we know that no amount of wealth could satisfy our yearning to share, to learn, to bond, to experience, to love, and to be loved […] No, companionship isn’t the elixir for all unhappiness; much of that comes from within, through the introspection and self-discovery of just being alone. Even still, our spirits are lifted when we take some of life’s journeys together. So, take the time to explore new interests, sow friendship and kindness, create lasting memories, and place value on the genuine relationships that enrich our lives and carry us into the future. ~ gh

Therefore, taking time to be alone is really a moment for personal growth. In it, I have discovered so many things about myself; I have been highly productive; and I have been able to enjoy a good amount of inner peace. Sacrificing that for companionship would be a high price.

To that end, life has taught me a thing or two about relationships. Chief among those things is this: you will never have to force what should already flow naturally. That was a difficult thing for someone as stubborn as me to understand. I often wanted what I wanted when I wanted it — and, boy, did I get it! So much of my inner peace got disrupted when those relationships proved to be problematic or even toxic. And that is to say nothing about what happened to my self-confidence.

But, from the heartbreaks, I learned what real love is and what genuine relationships are:

Love is kinetic; it requires the energy of each partner to justify its existence and increase its value. Love might be measured differently, from one person to another, but in a relationship, love will always be quantifiable […] When fate brings someone special into your life — someone to whom you are just as special, if not more — don’t just cherish them and don’t take their love for granted. Give your words meaning through action. Demonstrate your love for them in ways they can most readily understand and appreciate it […] Indeed, they, too, deserve happiness, and they also deserve to know that their own efforts aren’t squandered […] Life is not easy. Even still, when two people resolve to take the journey together, they lighten the burden for each other, and create a legacy of joy and wonder that can endure for generations. All it takes is caring, communication, understanding, and a bit of effort. ~ gh

The strongest relationships are built on trust, and maturity and fidelity must be present for them to endure. But powerful relationships (“power couples”) need one more quality — symmetry. Be with someone who shares your ideals and values, who understands your journey, who works as hard and prays as often as you, and who complements and contributes to your life. Each of you must support the other person’s goals and growth, while reflecting the totality of your collective ambitions. To be sure, the road won’t always be an easy one to travel; there will be struggles and disappointments; and every day can’t bring a victory. But, more often than not, it will be in those darker moments that you rediscover each other. Together, you realize that there isn’t anything you ultimately cannot do. Together, you plan, you execute, and you succeed. And together, you move with the passion, cunning, and certitude of an apex predator that silences a room and even makes hell nervous. ~ gh

[Art credit: Unknown]

I also came to understand what real relationships are not. They are not burdensome or one-sided.

Relationships just won’t survive without two people exerting mutual effort. In fact, even while you may give it your all, it can feel like the other person isn’t even showing up. That is perfectly okay; do not blame yourself. You see, first, you must accept that you have done your best, and that you are not responsible for how someone else behaves in the relationship. After that, you also must acknowledge, for your own sake, that you are not obligated to drown in a place of brokenness. Your time is better invested in the people who genuinely care about you and fully value you, as well as in those things intended to better your life. And so, after this needed change in your perspective, you must be willing to do the hardest thing yet — walk away, uttering three simple words to reaffirm confidence in your decision. Say them aloud: “I am free.” ~ gh

Real relationships are also not about disrespect and toxicity.

Know your worth. Know the difference between the things you are getting out of a relationship and what you actually deserve. You will never be truly happy in situations where you are not appreciated or, worse, where your spirit is constantly drained. Know that, while you probably cannot change your penchant for being empathetic, you are still free to change any dynamic that does not positively suit you, or that does not protect your heart, or that does not bring you peace. And by the same token, you should not have to guess where you stand in a person’s life. If you do, then grant yourself permission to walk away. You do not need to do this out of malice or frustration — but as a kind gesture to yourself. After all, you cannot force another person to see your value, to appreciate your remarkable presence, or to take this journey with you. Better that you focus on what lies ahead of you — and, yes, on those who motivate you and fuel your momentum — than on the distractions that can steal your energy and focus along the way. ~ gh

Those nuggets of advice to myself should have been simple and instructive, right? Well, at one time or another, they weren’t for me, and I made excuses for why I did the opposite of things, only to end up feeling dejected and devastated in the end.

Today, I am a different person. Today, I refuse to compromise my peace for anything that does not feel right. I have resolved that, until the real thing comes along, and for as long as I should focus on building my world and its peace, my life is fine as a single man, even on the doorsteps of fifty years old. To be sure, I have not been stubbornly single; that would just be rude. I do date. But when I do get consistent red flags while dating, I end things quickly. I do not want to repeat past mistakes by digging deeper.

Today, while I think about my mother’s words, I also reflect on the words that I wrote to myself in journals (and shared here), and I honestly smile. Yes, I am single, and to the outside world, that might be mildly concerning. But, for every reason that I have given, I am quite okay with my relationship status. At least, from this vantage point, after a few years of false hopes and time out of the game, I have been able to focus on me, and I am better equipped to recognize what is (and what isn’t) truly meant for my life when it comes.