This morning I woke up to see a group chat, where a friend of mine mentioned how she eats alone at the desk because she has no lunch partner and it feels awkward to eat alone at the office cafeteria. Now this is one issue with the present-day, that many of us can totally relate to. These days in the workplace, our environment keeps changing and we can’t always find a group to sit, eat & chat with or have a cup of coffee. Sooner or later we all are going to face this fact. I too realized this only after four years of my own work life. Until then, I had only had some of the awesome friends to chat over lunch and also to share our home-cooked lunch boxes. In the year 2012, I shifted from Hyderabad to Bangalore and I encountered a very unexpected predicament there. In the office, during the lunch hours everybody except me seemed to have friends and it gripped me with a distinct sense of loneliness in hundreds of people around.
In my previous office, on the very next day I joined, a young woman suddenly appeared at my desk and introduced herself to me — apparently she figured that I hailed from the same place as she was and she wanted to say a ‘Hi’. I wouldn’t have done the same because I don’t believe that we can find promisingly nice people to interact with only in the same ethnicity or religion or mother tongue etc. I’m also not saying that she is one to advocate that — only clearly she was one to make an advance in such scenarios whereas I’d have been one to remain indifferent. However, I am really glad she did, for that was the beginning of one of the most special friendships in my life that I’d cherish. We slowly happened to add a couple of more friends into that group who were just as amazing as she was and I had never had a single day to eat alone.
So far I had taken it for granted that we just stumble upon great friends wherever we go. But there’s only half truth to that statement. We do stumble upon them, but ‘not everywhere’. Having shifted to Bangalore, I was hoping so far, that soon I will find some like-minded people who I can connect with. Each time I went to the cafeteria alone, sitting on a lonely table somewhere among the hungry crowd, I couldn’t help but wonder if people looked at me with pity, feeling sorry for me for not having a company. Even though the matter was actually true at that moment, that I admittedly had no company, I had begun to hate the formation of any potential sympathy towards me.
I did find a couple of team-mates eventually to lunch with, but I never really *enjoyed* my time with them. Later, with the switch of project and building, I again ended up with the same situation, but this time around, I didn’t look for lunch-mates. I started working on evolving a comfort zone for myself to eat alone with contentment — without the thoughts of who-thinks-what-about-me, at my own pace. There used to be some or the other internet articles that I came across while browsing at desk, and not have time to read them at that instant – I started catching up on those during my solo lunch hours. By the way, Pocket is a great App for doing just that. Finally, I reached a point where I no longer wanted to quickly gobble up and run away like I had stolen & eaten someone else’s food. It no longer bothered me even if I found my manager sitting at a table next to me or if I was right in the center of the cafeteria with a decent view for anyone to take a good look at what was on my plate.
I would, however, avoid the peak hours when seizing an empty table would require me to have the speed & precision of an eagle to compete with great deal of people — who with plates in their hands had by now mastered the art of securing their overflowing ‘rasam‘ from spilling on heads of the successfully seated ones while steering through them — or protecting the prized possession of the day, called ‘paapad‘ from flying away under the giant fans in the cafeteria. Prized Possession – because for some undeclared reason, despite having paid for a so-called all-you-can-eat lunch, ‘paapad‘ container used to be guarded by a sturdy-looking man, so that no one could make it to more than one of that!
That point was a remarkable milestone in the development of my personality. Because I was that person, who despite having a fairly good number of friends in the college, had skipped many lunches if they were stuck in a class or practical session and weren’t available. Or if I was held up in a class for longer than they could wait for me, I would have a sad day with an empty stomach.
I often wonder, how did I become like that – ‘terrified of isolation’? Maybe it’s because of my Mom, who often has mentioned how she “can’t-eat-alone”, and there were times she used to skip dinner because her Mother-in-law and Sister-in-law used to finish theirs before she arrived home from work. I also remember how many times she expressed appreciation towards her Father-in-law, that he was the only person to notice her skip her dinner and made her eat in his own presence, so she had the necessary company. (‘Lucky-Her’, for if my FIL ever looks at me while I have my food, the only thing he would ever do is judge me how it is not the way ‘they’ eat it, hence supposedly the wrong way.) Anyway, having said that, I have often felt that Mom has subtly tried to indicate how ‘social’ she is having grown up in a very big yet close-knit family — and what a difficult thing it is for her to ever not having a company to eat with, so much so that she could skip meals. Today I want to tell her, and anyone who thinks along those lines, that finding it difficult to eat alone, as a matter of fact is not a quality of oh-I’m-so-social to show off, but rather a ‘downside’. And sooner you realize it, the faster you should try to overcome it. Tell me then, what an outstandingly amplified level of confidence you accomplished when you have done so.
I reached the second milestone with a similar achievement when I wished to travel alone…planned it…and successfully ‘executed’ a solo trip to Singapore. If I remember about that time now, I still can’t believe I actually did it all alone! With a husband who seemed to stay forever outside the country on his business trips, I had to find a companion within my own self with whom I could go out for shopping or eat out (most essential for roadside Golgappas) or even travel to places. With ‘his’ commitments towards our personal vacation trips, I had bleak hopes of ever making it with my husband before I start developing some gray hair (not exaggerating – a couple of years in Bangalore is enough to bless you with some of those). So after a lot of contemplation, one day I booked the flights. Few days later, I landed in a place I had never been before, with a company of no known-soul, heading towards an accommodation I’d never got a recommendation from anyone I personally knew. I had roughly thought about all possible safety plans, got a travel insurance if something went wrong, carried some Singapore dollars and cards, printed contacts of family, and Indian embassy to be kept in the pocket at all times, and with lots of courage and anxiety I had embarked on a journey that was going to change my life. In Singapore, I enjoyed every minute of being there — and I realized how deeper one connects to the place if they explore it alone. Of course, I’d still love to travel with a companion, but then it would be more about the togetherness and less about the location itself. So, both sides are worth experiencing — the biggest experience of all being the sense of pride, freedom and self-empowerment. That will be the time when one truly understands the difference between being alone and lonely.