How have we arrived in a culture that values individualism, personal autonomy, independence and fulfilment higher than ever before in human history, yet at the same time is terrified of solitude?
It is this paradox that British author Sara Maitland reflects on in How to be Alone. In her book, Maitland highlights our cultural ambivalence toward being alone. On the one hand, she says, we support solitude in the pursuit of great feats – sailing around the world, for instance, or writing a novel – but to choose this as a general lifestyle? Then you’re likely to be labelled a crazy cat lady.
Maitland addresses the instant reflex reaction we sometimes feel when faced with those who choose to be alone. “We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops ‘eccentric’ habits,” she says.
And, indeed, research bears her out. In a study published in a Science journal, researchers found that most of us would rather administer electric shocks to ourselves than be left alone with our thoughts, even for just six minutes. “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” say the study’s authors.
Lonely, or just ‘alone’?
Psychology is only just beginning to distinguish aloneness from loneliness. The main distinguisher, it seems, is that being alone is a physical description (meaning when we are alone, we are just not with people), while loneliness is a feeling that often is experienced as negative and painful. “But 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 lonely as those living on their own,” explains psychologist Dr Ester Buchholz in her bestselling The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in a World of Attachment. According to Buchholz, 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 beings, why would bonding prove so arduous?”
Evolutionary psychologists say the feeling of loneliness developed to alert humans – social animals who rely on each other to survive – that they were too close to the perimeter of the group and at risk of becoming prey. Loneliness, in its most unhealthy form, they assert, is a distorted way of thinking that often has an emotional trigger, be it a big change like a breakup or a geographic move, or something as simple as attending a wedding alone or bickering with a sibling. The result is the same. Our subconscious rewinds back to when we were young and worried someone else wasn’t going to be there to take care of us. “Loneliness is evoked by the ‘emotional memory’ of being a child in need of help,” says US psychotherapist Lauren Mackler, author of Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness and Transform Your Life.
The art of solitude
But, say the experts, the ability to be alone is, in fact, essential to psychological wellness. Buchholz points out that many of the societies that emphasise 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 travellers to Japan, in particular, are impressed by the niches set aside in public spaces for individuals to sit alone.
Maitland, too, speaks of the joys of going solo. Among the rewards to be reaped from unlearning our culturally conditioned fear of aloneness and learning how to “do” solitude well are, she says, “A deeper consciousness of oneself, a deeper attunement to nature, a deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual), increased creativity and an increased sense of freedom.” She encourages us to confront the fear of being alone through small steps, like taking a long bath, turning off our cell phones, or travelling without a companion.
According to Buchholz, now, more than ever, do 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,” she explains, adding that the stillness of alone experience also provides us with much-needed rest and is, therefore, a restorer of energy. “It also brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom,” she continues. “Alonetime is fuel for life.”
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