As I write this, I’m eating alone. My laptop, oversized bowl of carbonara and large glass of white wine jostling for space on the round table I requested to move to so that I could spread out.
I’ve never really done this. I regularly write and drink, in coffee shops, bars and pubs. I often eat at the same time – a bowl of chips, some hipster bar snack, even a baked Camembert at my usual Sunday night writing spot. But never before have I walked into a restaurant, full of couples celebrating anniversaries, families gathered for birthdays, and boldly said the words: ‘Table for one, please.’
This new adventure is not borne out of necessity – I’m only five minutes walk from home, and my fridge full of food there. I’ve even got my keys with me, I checked.
But I’m here because I want to learn something important. To drill into myself a truth that is up there in my top five vital things to believe about the world and myself. It’s a truth that can be summed up by a quote written in the front of my Bible by a friend many years ago – little does she know that she etched it also on my heart. Not a proverb of Solomon or a teaching of Jesus, but a quote from Max Ehrmann’s poem, Desiderata:
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
It’s a well-documented phenomenon that women in particular are taught by a patriarchal society not to take up space. As is evident from the classic Tumblr ‘Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train’, many (no, not all) men are perfectly content to stretch out on public transport, spreading their knees wide, arms over the backs of multiple seats. Women, on the other hand, tend to tuck in elbows and avoid any possibility of being in the way. Experience shows too that when crossing paths with men where there is not quite enough space on a pavement for everyone, women are quick to tuck themselves in, move out of the way, make space for others.
It’s not necessarily a problem with individual men; although of course there are plenty with an entitlement complex. The problem is with a society that teaches all of us that public space is men’s space.
Gender dynamics aside, most of us know the awkward feeling of being alone in a space where you don’t feel you belong. I’ve felt it walking through Borough Market on a busy Saturday afternoon , when everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves with friends and family. I’ve felt it in cocktail bars when everyone else seems richer, classier or simply better dressed. I’ve felt it in university classes, the fear of being found out as a fraud by other students who seemed to be born reading Augustine in the original Latin.
The world is set up for those who are successful – in social status, wealth, intelligence, relationships. Whenever we feel without one of those (even temporarily or voluntarily, like spending some time alone), we’re inclined to feel that we don’t belong.
You have a right to be here.
There’s a reason that I want to break that feeling; to know deep inside myself that I have the same right to take up space as every other human being on the planet; to know that whether feeling alone, or inadequate, or from the wrong crowd, I must not feel ashamed of existing. There’s a reason I need to know with all my heart that I don’t need company to complete me, that I don’t rely on others to make my presence valid, that I don’t need to apologise for making myself known as everyone else does.
The reason is this: if I don’t believe in my right to take up space, I will never speak out against those who deny others space. If I don’t believe that my voice is valid, I will never use it on behalf of those who are silenced. If I don’t believe that I am enough on my own, I will not stand with those who are treated as less than others.
I know I have potential to make this world a fairer and better place; that’s not the arrogance of youth, its the recognition of the creativity and agency that is part of the privilege of being made in the image of a creative and active God. We’re given permission to act in this world. We’re given a mandate to shout against injustice, to speak truth to power, to hold leaders to account.
It feels scary to step out and be counted, to impinge on others’ space – and the instinct to apologise for making too much noise is strong. But the desire not to waste this life is stronger.
So here I am, eating my carbonara alone. And as the restaurant empties, I’m resisting the urge to get out of the way. It’ll be one more glass of wine as the waiters begin to clear up around me.
Because I have a right to be here.