Living Life as an Observer

On being a loner and grappling with loneliness

Whitney Hess
May 19, 2013 · 6 min read

For as long as I can remember, I expected to spend my life alone. I’m an only child and got used to playing by myself at a very young age.

I was never one for make-believe. The world around me was much too exciting to live in my imagination. Instead I picked up photography. My dad had been a professional photographer in his 20s and naturally I wanted to be just like him.

As soon as I could lift the camera (metal bodies were heavy back then!) I was behind it. Through that little lens I could observe and explore the entire universe.

My dad taught me how to see light, the way it moves and bends, the way it reflects off glass and water, the shadows it casts and the shade it provides. And by honing my sensitivity to light, he showed me how to compose a photograph so that all the relevant elements were perfectly squared in the frame.

I spent my tween and teenage years wandering the streets of New York City, where I was born and raised. I was a sort of uptown latchkey kid, wandering off for long periods of time. “I’m going out!” I’d yell as I pulled the front door behind me. I make it sound far more rebellious than it actually was. My parents were overprotective and pretty strict. But every now and then I could sneak away and stroll down to the East River to watch the water, and the runners and the dog-walkers. I loved to watch life happen all around me. And I felt my duty was to document it by putting it on film.

You see, they were living, and I was there to make sense of it. I never had the sense that I was living too, that I would one day get to do those things. I wasn’t really supposed to be there and my parents better not find out. I was only here to watch.

Watching is a very solitary thing to do. You don’t speak, you aren’t seen. If you get involved, you just might change the course of the future. You keep quiet, you withdraw from the environment around you, and you don’t respond to what you see. You just keep watching.

I became a professional watcher, I guess you could say. I’ve spent a career observing people and trying to make sense of them, then helping others see it too. I became adept at using my words and I slowly stopped using the camera. Now that we all have a camera in our pocket 24 hours a day, everyone has become a photographer. It lost its luster for me, taking photos. But I’ve never stopped looking.

I caught the travel bug very young. Not only did I grow up in the heart of Manhattan with all of its energy and diversity and grit, my parents also believed in showing me the world outside of my island. We traveled throughout Europe on my vacations from school, spent summer weekends in the country and I got to accompany them on the occasional business trip. The world was a big, endless picture show and I wanted to see every bit of it.

When I was old enough, I started traveling alone. This scared the hell out of my mother, but she dealt with it. She wanted me to see the world too, and though she didn’t quite get why I wanted to see it by myself, she eventually accepted it.

Every place I’ve been — and there have been many — I’ve dictated my own itinerary, packed in as many sights as humanly possible, and slept very little. I have wanted to see it all, and I’ve never stopped until I’m satisfied.

There was never any question about whether I would travel alone; I never even asked my bestest of friends to join me. I always assumed that other people who tire before me, would want to see things I didn’t think were worth seeing, or would in some way prevent me from seeing what I wanted to see. My travels weren’t about experiencing another way of life, they were about observing it. I was never a participant.

I remember one time I was at Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs. On a part of the tour, there’s a little passageway where the tour guides stop you to take your photograph. Everyone in line in front of me was with their family or in a couple. When my turn came, I stood in front of the cave opening for my photo, messenger bag across my chest, camera hanging off one shoulder, maps stuffed in my back pocket. The photographer asked, “Is it just you?” and I think for the first time I regretted that it was. Suddenly I was the subject, I was in the experience, and it sucked to be there alone.

I can’t be sure, but I think things changed for me then. I started to get lonely. Deeply, painfully lonely. 25 years of being a loner and I’d rarely felt lonely before. Suddenly I wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to have a partner, to be a partner. I wanted someone to share the wild world with, and to discuss it all with at the end of the day.

I looked for a long time. I got myself into relationships that were no partnership at all. I was lonelier in them than I was out of them. They wanted to see the world as I see it, but they didn’t want to see me. Maybe I wasn’t ready to be seen.

I’m writing this from Key West as I stroll down unfamiliar streets and into parts unknown. I live here now with a man I call my partner. We’re here to discover ourselves, together.

He’s as fiercely independent as I am, and he isn’t interested in changing that. But he’s not a seer like me; he’s a maker. When stuff doesn’t work the way it should, he fixes it. When he leaves a space, you know he was there. Because he made it better. He intervened.

Seven months ago, we left everything behind, our old selves, in an attempt at reinvention. He, a keyboard jockey with dreams of the ocean; me, a city kid in desperate need of space. We sold all of our furniture, donated bags of clothes, saved a few personal items, and put the rest on the sidewalk. Giving up all that I had acquired was the most rebellious act of my very conservative life. It symbolized freedom.

I was ready to try being for a while.

Being his partner, now I see what it means to experience life with another person. Whether it’s traveling to the other side of the world, or in our own backyard, we aren’t just looking around at life — we’re living it. We make a delicious gourmet meal (he’s the chef, I try to help); we take a bike ride around town, along the beach, pass the fancy homes, and point out which one we’ll own one day; we swim in the pool and analyze the trees around us; we stay up late talking about life and who we want to be.

So here we are, living. New surroundings, new routines, new friends. The same two bodies adopting new contexts in the hopes of shifting something fundamental inside of us. We are on this journey together, continually surprised by the parallels in our personal development. We egg each other on, push each other’s boundaries and remove the constraints that we each separately face. We find it easier now to become who we’ve always dreamt of being because we’re both going through it individually, and because we trust each other, and because we’ve seen those future people inside of one another all along. The future has become the present.

It’s been tough stuff learning how to navigate a partnership. I don’t have total control over my life anymore. Of course I never really did, but my perception of being in control was a warm blanket I used to cuddle myself to sleep in every night. I was a proud lone wolf. But I finally realized it was self-exile; I wasn’t surviving, I was hiding.

The sun is shining. It’s time to close my eyes and stand in the light.

This Happened to Me

Life is made of stories.

    Whitney Hess

    Written by

    Coach, writer, and designer putting humanity back into business. I believe empathy builds empires.

    This Happened to Me

    Life is made of stories.

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