I was recently reading an article titled, How to Be Alone: An Anecdote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time, on the blog BrainPickings.org.
In this article, Maria Popova (founder of, and sole writer for BrainPickings) reflects on the societal stigmas surrounding solitude and the act of being alone. She does so by citing quotes from the book, How to be Alone, written by Sara Maitland. I found this article to be interesting and helpful in realizing a couple of things that I didn’t fully recognize before.
*(The following quotes are from the book, ‘How to be Alone‘, by Sara Maitland. These are the ones that I found to be of particular interest.)*
According to Maitland (and Popova), the main question of our time is one of paradoxical confusion:
How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?
We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.
My immediate reaction to this was one of guilt. It was as if I had been wasting my alone time by filling the silence with negativity– not so much recently, but in the past– I found myself concerned with the amount of time I spent daydreaming– this was creative, but not creative at the right time. I was concerned with the moments I spent alone; I wondered if, perhaps, I was spending too much time alone. I worried that maybe my alone time was really me just attempting to dilute loneliness with the thought that there was some purpose to it. There were often times where I’d sit in deep thought. I’d sit alone for hours, sometimes for the entire day, analyzing myself and existence. But at the end of all of my realizations, the guilt would creep in, am I alone because I chose to be or because I have to be? Is this my choice or is this what society has decided for me because I’m not a typical extrovert?
It was an odd feeling– to feel recharged from the silence of solitude, and yet, to feel unsettled by my acceptance of it. I accepted that maybe I was destined to crave what may– or may not– have been my choice in the first place.
But this is where the very paradox lies in the issue– everyone spends time alone, and yet this isn’t seen as something productive or beneficial. I think there is a lot of truth to what Maitland states in the above quote, but I think she fails to account for the way in which the technological advances of society have contributed to the presence of this paradoxical existence we live.
While yes, society, more than ever, encourages autonomy, freedom of expression, creativity, etc., the way in which people have been led to do this is via living in congruence with the cultural trends. The way in which we stand out in the crowd is not by being different, per say, but by being the best as being a member of society. The idea that I am an individual is held by myself, and myself alone, and yet, others in society see me as a sheep in the flock. I am no different than anyone else (for the most part). Individuality is only acknowledged by the idea that there is some majority, or some mass trend that’s followed. To be an individual one must resist against the riptide of idealistic conformity– but one must also answer to this conformity with a consciousness that is repelled by it. Thus, it must, at first, repel it in return.
The stigma surrounding the act of being alone –active solitude– is the idea that these people are somehow peculiar and unwell. I think with this thought, there is a subconscious expectation that people are only as good as those things that others witness them doing– and being alone is not only an impossible act to share with others, it’s a testament to just how much people don’t want to see what you’re doing in the first place.
It doesn’t matter if you actually saw Mount Everest if you don’t have a picture with it. You have a story about your trip to Guatemala to work with orphan children? Well, let me tell you about my future endeavors; let me tell you about that one documentary I read; did I ever tell you about that time I applied to go to Spain to work with orphans? I’ll probably end up doing something of the sort next year. Anyways, let’s go get some Frappuccinos.
People nowadays, and maybe this has always been the case, they listen so that they can then be heard. They let you speak so that they can respond. With an egocentric perception of the world, people aren’t able to understand any need for solitude. No one can experience them experiencing life. What’s the fun in that?
I think it’s safe to say a majority of people spend that time avoiding what they perceive as boredom. And I can’t say I blame them… but I guess my question is really about the actual experience of boredom itself. Boredom seems to be the experience that results when one perceives that he/she has an absence of activity of interest.
But it seems that boredom is a symptom of unrest and overstimulation. Boredom is a result of a perception, but this perception is not an accurate one. There are always things to do– unless you’ve died, or something. But here’s the issue: boredom is uncomfortable in many senses. If you’re bored then you are forced to sit– to ruminate– with yourself. And quite frankly, very few of us can brag that we make good company without some sort of stimulus to play off of. Without the computer, TV, car, phone, etc., very few of us are actually able to produce an original thought about a variety of subjects.
Nothing is more destructive of warm relations than the person who endlessly “doesn’t mind.” They do not seem to be a full individual if they have nothing of their own to “bring to the table,” so to speak. This suggests that even those who know that they are best and most fully themselves in relationships (of whatever kind) need a capacity to be alone, and probably at least some occasions to use that ability. If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.
And so, I think people who’ve made peace with being alone, don’t necessarily have an aversion to being seen and perceived by others, rather they understand the positive effects of fulfilling the need to reflect and recharge. They allow themselves a time of invisibility because it allows for greater gains in self-awareness, contemplation and emotional intelligence. Those who make use of their time alone are those who are best able to understand their mental dialogues and their sense of self– and in turn, they are best able to interact and understand those things that are most important.
Looking at this fact, I really value the oddly large amounts of alone time that I’ve had. During those moments, where I’ve had to face myself, I’ve thought through and analyzed a lot about life and people… and myself, of course. This is the sense of freedom that I think most results from being true to oneself and/or having the capacity to develop a sense of self in the first place. You understand the ways in which others think, you can analyze their thought patterns, and you can tell a lot about them by watching them. But first, you need to understand these processes of your own mind.
Could I be happy living alone for my entire life? I don’t think so. But, I don’t necessarily think that this is what the act of being in solitude implicates. Solitude is useful in the sense that it allows a recharge of the mind, it allows a furtherance of understanding and insight, but it also allows you to become an individual. And in a sense of separation from the coagulated whole, one is able to be the catalyst for great change.
No man is an island. Well, a permanent one, that is.