On Solitude

Should we be so scared of being alone? Perhaps we can learn a thing or two by getting to know the one thing we can never escape: ourselves.

The cure for loneliness is solitude, said American poet Marianne Moore. She must have been more zen than I, content with vast stretches of quiet and no internet connection, in empty rooms overlooking fallow fields. She probably had a family to return to when solo lost its appeal, when the cabin got cold and she craved home-cooked meals. I dare say the cure for loneliness is also company. Of course, not just any company, not company for company's sake. Though surrounding ourselves with people can help to quell an existential longing, it can also amplify it, for no matter how close or tenuous our social bonds, we shall remain, inherently and biologically, alone. This is fundamental solitude, triggering a loneliness we hope to drive to extinction, an animal we never thought was cute anyway. We forget, with our brains so large and smart, that we are animals too, and loneliness won't die until we do. Still, we think we can end it and, even more erroneously, we think that we should.

Loneliness, as commonly understood, is that undesirable experience of isolation, the grief that accompanies a lack of company. We all feel it, once in awhile or often, and we employ our respective methods to avoid its grasp or to pass quickly through. But then, innocently enough, we miss something vital. We dismiss a condition both rich and universal. In our rush to escape this inescapable human experience, we abandon a chance to more intimately know ourselves, to lean into loneliness until we meet solitude, its antithesis and kin.

If there is an antidote to an unwanted, albeit common, sense of alienation, might it be found in something similar but more self-directed? Maybe it's true that the cure for loneliness is solitude; there are at least some intricacies here worth exploring. Though Moore penned the expression, numerous others have quoted or paraphrased it. Likely, she paraphrased it as well, since the concept is not at all new, not conceived in any bubble. It is, however, an increasingly popular meme in our modern and hyper-connected world, suggesting that we recognize its value and also identify a need. For all our interconnection, loneliness persists. Even so, the heralding of solitude as elixir for all things lonely does not correlate with people actually prioritizing and enjoying it. It's as if theory and practice are, once again, at odds.

Solitude, in contrast to its distant cousin, loneliness, is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is replenishing and often chosen rather than imposed. It offers space in which to reflect and a quality of time neither hurried nor crowded. A necessary state for creativity and deep thought, solitude is associated with intellectuals, artists, and spiritual practitioners.

“The saint and poet seek privacy," said Emerson, "to ends the most public and universal." True, though it is not reserved for creatives and mystics alone. Any task requiring presence of mind benefits from a certain solitude—be it reading, composing a thoughtful email, or paying attention to the sounds of the woods. In solitude, we cultivate improved concentration, relaxation, and autonomy. Definite assets, no matter job or lifestyle.

Of course, some of us enjoy the experience and seek it out, whereas others avoid it as much as possible. For all its proven perks, solitude is also stigmatized. In a society that prioritizes performance and tangible outputs, solitude can be considered unproductive, a selfish act of time wasted, of non-doing. A solo walk through the woods may serve the solo walker, but it produces nothing measurable for the rest of us, no results to hold firmly in our hands. In this light, it is perceived useless and its practitioners less worthy than their more 'productive' counterparts. Though we fetishize ideas, we tend to be wary of too much time spent in reverence of them, and in contemplation. Similarly, we value the skills of problem-solving yet dismiss the notion that some problems cannot be solved with constant and obvious action. We need, as well, the option to step away, taking time and space in which to better understand the nature of our problems in the first place. Solitude gives us an opportunity to do so and should therefore be valued for its ability to unlock solutions, aiding to solve practical dilemmas as well as emotional and spiritual ones.

But solitude can be misunderstood, even vilified. For instance, it is often confused with loneliness and its associated traits. Depression, for instance. Disconnection, isolation, boredom, shame. It can be linked, though inaccurately, with a sense of unworthiness, as in alone-therefore-unloveable. This is one of the more damaging connotations of solitude and of loneliness. A notable difference between the two is that a cultivation of solitude strengthens self-awareness and thus an ability to see through such limiting ideas, whereas loneliness can lead to a depleted sense of self, only perpetuating them. It's reasonable, if concerning, that we can muddle the two, thinking them synonymous when really they are disparate things. The reality of our modern age is that we spend less time in solitude and are consequently out of touch with its qualities and merits.

At work, too, collaboration rules, assumed to yield results that individual workers cannot. Collectives are increasingly popular and heralded for their innovation and their productivity. We romanticize group work with an overly simplified formula—two brains are better than one, three brains are better than two. More people working equals more work done. Indeed, a group working together will solve problems in a unique way, specific to the minds in the room and how they play off of each other. It's important to note, however, that this type of working is only different, not better. Though solitary problem-solving may be slower, though the process less linear, it is at least personalized, granting us the freedom to choose our own parameters. Solo and self-directed, we can determine the solutions that best suit us, uncovering microscopic truths in the process. Whether we are looking to untangle vast and metaphysical conundrums, or simple day-to-day problems, solitude can help. But we first must choose it.

The internet, though a valuable tool, pervades our mental space and our consciousness. We champion connectivity as one of the greatest achievements of our technological age. Indeed it is, but the cost of such connectivity is both significant and far-reaching and we have reason and responsibility to address that. We access the network without thinking, scroll down newsfeeds before even noticing, incoming and outgoing all day long. Empty time is a distant concept, relegated to memories of life-before-the-internet. This has side effects we choose to overlook.

Since we can almost always get online, at our desks or as we walk through the woods, we are developing an inability to be alone with our thoughts. We equate being alone with being lonely and being lonely with failure (of self or society or both). Accordingly, being alone must equal failure. So we avoid it. We impulsively pull out our cell phones the moment space opens up, like an automated response to solitude and its perceived perils. This is evident in any lineup, on every bus, at all the restaurant lunch counters. When we are alone with even a sliver of time, all of the feelings and moods and sensations that have been awaiting our undivided attention peep up to be heard. It can be, understandably, overwhelming. Likewise understandable is our urge to log on, to tune out. Unfortunately, in so doing we tune out not only the discomfort of solitude but also to the wisdom that can only be found therein.

“As humans we are inheritors of an unshakeable privacy,” says author and essayist André Alexis. Self-enclosed, our minds and our bodies have no choice but to be alone. Solitude is, then, our authentic state, as sound a truth as our bodies being 75 per cent water, as our hearts having four chambers with which to distribute through our systems the blood. No one can be with us inside our minds. And until we choose to share our thoughts, with one person or many, they remain absolutely private, even painfully so.

On the up side, they are one of the few things we can call our own—one of the few things we can control, in theory (though my thoughts rarely seem in control). Alongside thought, our emotions, feelings, and sensations also exist as innately private experiences. Again, we can share these, and we do. But how thoroughly can we share them? Once they are filtered through us and outwardly expressed, have they not changed, been curated or otherwise altered, made to fit in the constraints of language?

It's reasonable that we seek remedy for loneliness outside ourselves as well, in other people, in our work, in sex and god and romance and cell phones. Arguably, we are interdependent as well as solitary, in a web more profound than the internet.

It seems an impossibility that we could ever wholly express what we are experiencing inside, what we are feeling, what we celebrate and ache for. This is, to me, a deeply existential truth, fuelling a kind of loneliness I am forever seeking to resolve, or at least understand. Paradoxically, this is exactly the kind of loneliness that solitude can soothe, offering space and time in which to turn and face it, accept it, see it as a wonder rather than a curse. It's reasonable that we seek remedy for loneliness outside ourselves as well, in other people, in our work, in sex and god and romance and cell phones. Arguably, we are interdependent as well as solitary, in a web more profound than the internet. In this web we have opportunity to be recognized and understood, to share our separate, yet universal human experiences. Alone together, we are together alone. There is comfort here. Where solitude accompanies a self-knowing, union confirms belonging to a larger whole; the tension between them is where we can reconcile with loneliness. Though we cannot change the inherent solitude that comes simply from being alive, we can at least reach over our respective walls, if temporarily, to meet in the physical world and connect.

Not surprisingly, interacting with other people is some of the hardest work we do. It can drive us back to solitude! We all know the feeling of being lonely even when surrounded by people. We know the frustration that comes with feeling under-appreciated or unheard in the middle of a family gathering, in a room with our partner, or at a party full of strangers. Nevertheless, we need each other, and we need love. Connection, for all of its shortcomings, is a salve for the wounds of our self-enclosure. It is a worthwhile pursuit and a universal one, offering respite from real or perceived isolation and the adverse effects thereof. In between our solo birth and solo death, we have at least the illusion of union, if not always the real thing. Still, our interdependence, though hardly refutable, will not offset loneliness altogether. And, mercifully, it can't displace solitude at all.

So, what are we to do with all of this? Embrace it? Greet solitude as the esteemed guest at our soul's door? In our modern world, it offers us a timeless gift, lending stillness amidst noise and encouraging reflection even as we are urged to look ahead to the fast future. In return, it requires patience, commitment, and a slow and steady cultivation. If we do honor it, tend it like a fire that keeps us warm, then it will do just that. We will come to prioritize it. Instead of taking a scroll down the newsfeed we might choose to stroll with ourselves through the trees. We could meet our thoughts with quiet attention rather than distract them with crowds and screens. Solitude is a route to self-awareness and without it we cannot fully know ourselves or heal ourselves from some basic human pain,

Perhaps it can cure loneliness—the kind that comes from being one person in one head at one point in time on the planet. Perhaps, and more importantly, it gives us cause to celebrate, each our own party, together lighting up the world.


“The End of Solitude”

William Deresiewicz writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that “A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive.”

Simultaneously fulfilling and intensifying our need for connection, social media has brought us to the point of avoiding solitude at all costs. As soon as we have an idle second, we reach for our phones to text, post, and like.

What does it take to resist society’s gravitational pull? According to Deresiewicz, “it takes a willingness to be unpopular.”

Tanya is not simply arguing that we put the phone down and go for a walk. Nor is she arguing for a retreat to hermitude. Some of our lives should be friction and sparks. Some of it should be quiet and still. Life is not an oscillation between these states: we depend on both to remain sane — AR

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