The Call of Solitude
How spending time alone can enhance intimacy. Being alone can fuel life.
What's really blocking our joy in relationships, our creativity, and our peace of mind? One surprising answer, in this age of alienation, is a lack of solitude.
Meaningful alonetime, it turns out, is a powerful need and a necessary tonic in today's rapid-fire world. Indeed, solitude actually allows us to connect to others in a far richer way.
We live in a society that worships independence yet deeply fears alienation: our era is sped-up and overconnected. The earth's population has doubled since the 1950s, and in cities across the world, urban crowding and the new global economy have revolutionized social relationships. Cellular phones now extend the domain of the workplace into every part of our lives; religion no longer provides a place for quiet retreat but instead offers "megachurches" of social and secular amusement; and climbers on the top of Mt. McKinley whip out hand-held radios to call home. We are heading toward a time when, according to the New York Times, "portable phones, pagers, and data transmission devices of every sort will keep us terminally in touch." Yet in another, more profound way, we are terminally out of touch. The need for genuine and constructive aloneness has gotten utterly lost, and, in the process, so have we.
Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alonetime is fuel for life.
As a psychologist, I have witnessed the enormous benefits of time alone and seen how it actually strengthens our attachments. A young woman confided in me that her husband was a wonderful lover, and the intimacy between them remarkable. Yet they did not go to bed or wake up at the same time, and in the morning she sipped coffee and read the paper by herself. The streets were quiet, and she was truly alone. She would never give up that alonetime in exchange for more sex; those solitary mornings and her husband's solitary nights were the bedrock of their unusual intimacy.
Both the need to be alone and to engage others are essential to human happiness and survival, with equally provocative claims. Mother nature gives aloneness a high priority: sleep is nature's way of ensuring solitude. But given the rise in the number of sleep-disorder clinics and the sale of soporific drugs, even this one fundamental outlet for aloneness is in trouble.
Our error is in presuming that aloneness and attachment are either/or conditions. They are at odds only when they are pitted against each other. The healing aspects of solitude have not gone wholly unnoticed in current psychology; "time out" has been heralded as a coping strategy, as an emotional breather. However, the phrase "time out" suggests that, in the theatre of life, relating and stimulation are the important dramas and alonetime merely intermission. In truth, each profoundly enriches the other. So, let's discover the joys of solitude.
Alone But Not Lonely
In the past century, the way we have handled aloneness has changed dramatically. "Alone" did not always mean an absence of others. The word was coined in medieval times, and originally signified a completeness in one's singular being. In religious terminology, "solitude" typically meant the experience of oneness with God. Yet all current meanings of "alone" imply a lack of something. Invariably, solitude meets with social questioning, if not censure. Even worse, people associate going it alone with antisocial pursuits and unnecessary risk taking. Perhaps most striking, solitude conjures up pangs of loneliness.
Loneliness is indeed the most obvious risk of aloneness. The very idea of solitude may evoke deep childhood fears of abandonment and neglect, and cause some people to rush toward connectedness. But I do not believe that loneliness can be totally banished from life, nor that it should be. Like anxiety or guilt, it's part of the human condition. It tells us that we are not being understood and are perhaps too isolated from community and connection. Surprisingly, it can also tell us that we are not taking time to be in contact with our inner selves—to be alone.
Psychology is only just beginning to distinguish aloneness from loneliness. Longing for a lover, relative, or friend is not the cause of loneliness, nor is finding someone necessarily the cure. People inside a tight-knit nuclear family can be just as unknown and lonely as those living on their own. Attachments are not automatically fulfilling relationships. In some cases, attachments are maintained only at the cost of extreme personal compromise: people speak of being shackled and held hostage in a relationship. Certainly there are well-made marriages, but if we are primarily social animals, why would bonding prove so arduous?
Most people seek balance through finding someone or something that will keep them in the world with peers and alone in contentment. Alonetime and together time require smooth segues in order to avoid conflict. Many societies that emphasize close-knit family patterns also provide built-in loopholes that offer individual escape, acceptable ways to dissociate from society—whether in trance dancing, vision quests, or hunting. Western travelers to Japan in particular are impressed by the niches set aside in public spaces for individuals to sit alone.