The culture of eating alone? Is it a paradox?
No. Even when we’re alone our actions are guided by our cultural norms. We gravitate towards eating at a table with a chair. We still wear clothes. Just because we’re alone we don’t forget. We may feel more free, to for example break into dance or burp or steal housemates food, but we do this with the knowledge of why we don’t do this in company. Those shared values never leave us, we perhaps just feel okay to ditch them for short periods.
When applied to eating alone, cultural values have a strange effect on eating habits.
Take this example. I eat donner kebab in bed when I’m busy and stressed. Sometimes after a big presentation, or before a big weekend of work. I feel I’ve ‘deserved’ it because I'm working hard, and I'm so focused and tired that I'm unafraid to walk brazenly, alone, into a kebab shop and order a large polystyrene tray of meat and pitta bread and salad and sause (and an Ayran). I don't need anyone telling me it’s okay to do this, our culture is already supportive of it. As Sara Maitland says in ‘How to be Alone’
“...we do not mind anyone being alone for one-off occasions...or for a distinct and interesting purpose”
Which is exactly what I experience for myself. I don't mind ME being alone for one-off occasions or a distinct and interesting purpose. But as Sara Maitland follows it up with,
“what seems to bother us are those individuals who make solitude a significant part of their life and their ideal of happiness.”
I wouldn't say I've made that choice, and yet the societal lack of tolerance does effect me. I basically wouldn't allow myself, wouldn't want to even, to a get a donner kebab at almost any other occasion (except a night out...). When I'm not overtly tired I would think far too much and the experience would not be enjoyable. I would worry about going to the shop, what the people in the shop were thinking about me, whether they thought I was a loser, why I was alone on a friday night? should I make more effort with friends? should I say yes to more events? Why was none contacting me?
In a way, we suspend the normal rules of behaviour for specific purposes and so allow ourselves to do these greasy, alone things. But they're only culturally acceptable in a very limited way. Have an easier day at work or have that deadline lifted, and you can't indulge.
In other words, it takes being tired and busy to actually enjoy my own company on quiet nights in. If I'm well rested and free, forget about it. I feel a strong push to organise things, with people. Which is good of course, because human relationships are what makes life worth living but perhaps I could also have amazing times with myself when I'm not tired? I mean I do...but only when working on a specific project!!! or absorbed in a fantasy world.
No matter what changes you want to make to your loneeating habits, the culture we collectively decide will make a difference on how you feel, how easy it will be, and even what you want to change.
Our culture already supports eating alone in an indulgent unhealthy way, for people who deem themselves to be working hard, in specific circumstances and normally under the supervision of the TV. How about we make it culturally acceptable for everyone to enjoy eating alone in a healthy, reflective way?