Solitude in 2018 is certainly a scarcity. The world has never been a busier place. Our information-per-minute and activity-per-day rates have tripled over the past ten years, despite modern conveniences designed to save us time and busyness. We spend a good deal of money on washing machines, fast food, car washes and housekeepers, and yet we still complain of being too busy to have time to ourselves. Click here to find out what loneliness looks like in our modern age.
“Time to ourselves” — that’s the real conundrum. We’ve been saying all along how important “alone time” is for every human being, and the existentialists generally agree with us. But not everyone thinks so, and these are the women who say they are too busy to have time to themselves. These are the women for whom no amount of conveniences will help give them the alone time they say they want. The reason? Because they don’t like it. For them, alone time is not a quiet time for solitude and introspection, but a lonely time of isolation and despair.
These are two states of aloneness. One is good, the other is bad. Positive aloneness — solitaire — is a healthy, productive state. You talk to yourself, you look into your inner being, you do some good old soul-searching and you emerge feeling refreshed. Monks and other keen meditation gurus cultivate the act of solitude as a way of reflecting upon life and to find peace in madness. Negative aloneness — isolation — is a lot different. Except for the aloneness, isolation is everything that solitaire is not. It causes worry, phobia and tremendous stress. It is a depressive state that brings out the deep-seated fears of childhood. Isolation is a terrible place to be, and that is why women who feel this kind of aloneness try so hard to avoid it.
This is a shame, because aloneness is actually one of the first things we learn and experience. It is what happens later
on that changes how we deal with it. “Aloneness is one of our first sensory experiences with antecedents in a cosy, comfortable womb state,” says Dr Ester Buchholz in The Call of Solitude. “We learn to fear this state when confronted by helplessness at birth.
If early experiences of aloneness are unduly threatening and reinforce helplessness, attachment needs become
overwhelming. Fear will henceforth be associated with alone-time.” A psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist and professor, Dr
Buchholz says that running away from being alone (she calls it ‘alonetime’) can be detrimental to your health. Frenzied, non-stop hasty behaviour — called ‘Hurry Sickness’ in medical circles — takes pleasure out of life and can lead to
headaches, high blood pressure and heart attacks. “Modern life encourages fears of aloneness by neither
honouring the inborn desire to be alone nor providing the skills that will aid us in lone pursuits for their own sake,”
says Dr Buchholz. “Thus we are encouraged to turn away from the essential core of our being.”
The easiest way of answering the question posed by this article is to see whether you actively pursue your alone time or not. Do you plan it and schedule it as part of your day, or do you avoid it by keeping yourself unnecessarily busy from morning to bedtime? Love it or loathe it, we all need alone time. And although you can avoid it some of the time, you cannot run away from aloneness all of the time. It is in how we experience this aloneness that determines whether it is beneficial to us or not.
Dr Buchholz posits that alone time is a basic need for our survival, as fundamental as food or water. But unlike these other necessities, alone time is becoming scarcer in modern cities instead of more abundant. Everything that has happened in the past fifty years has robbed mankind of the ability to find alone time in the regular course of a day. The population has doubled, for instance: there are more than three times as many people in the city today than thirty years ago, which means our personal space has reduced by three times. Twenty years ago, home telephones made it easier to interrupt people on the weekends during their alone times. Today, mobile phones make it the natural thing to do.
“I wondered if I had a right to be alone,” says Sally, 27. “I had tough questions pop up: was I becoming a recluse? Was I on my way to hermitage? Was I going to become one of those strange, withdrawn anti-socialists whom I often thought of as nuts?” Sally had to undergo a complete shift in the way she thought about people who seem to spend a lot of time by themselves. She had to change her judgement.
Yes, it could be that ‘alone time lovers’ often think about ‘out there’ things like what their souls can offer to the world. But they could also simply be solving a complex technical (or artistic!) problem, or maybe their crash diet is going awry, or maybe they are wondering what they could do about famine in Africa. In any case, they are not rejecting society or friends. “I realized that all they wanted was to be alone… and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be alone,” Sally says. “That realization changed my attitude towards alone time, and now, I look forward to my own special solitaire.”
“Solitude is not the foregoing of relationships with others,” says Dr Quinodoz in The Taming of Solitude. “On the contrary, it allows each individual to define himself, and the confrontation with the originality of the other brings out the preciousness and irreplaceability of what each person alone can contribute. The worth of the object and of the subject derives from the fact that each is unique; it is born of their solitude.”
Time well spent
If you’re busy receiving stimulus from the world around you, then you cannot concentrate on yourself. Similarly, if you are concentrating on listening to your own thoughts, you cannot engage with your surroundings. You cannot look in two different directions at the same time. Thus time alone should not be thought of as an anti-social activity, but rather an inner-social pursuit. Solitaire spent without distractions is not an escape from the world outside; it is merely a refocus on the world inside.
This is what being ‘spaced out’ is like. Some call positive solitaire one of the best ‘natural highs’ that you can experience. But this idea has received such bad press that we either relate it to drugs or religious meditation (or, some would say, mental instability). Aloneness for the sake of aloneness is very dodgy behaviour. As Dr Buchholz points out, private people today are regarded as snobbish (or crazy), and older single women are labelled ‘spinsters’ or ‘old maids’. There is little that seems positive about aloneness, hence our prejudice against it — both for ourselves and for others. “If you’re in actuality a nun or monk, your aloneness is acceptable,” explains Dr Buchholz. “But for one outside of the church to be called such is a put-down.”
Our only possession
There is happiness in aloneness. But we forget that happiness the older we get. Biologically, we are all geared for connectedness as we pursue the continuation of our species — the primary goal of all animals on earth. “Without relationships, society as we know it would cease to exist, and no generations would follow,” explains Dr Buchholz. “Biologically, parents and children must foster connections or else children may die.”
This is why our parents worry over us being ‘recluse’ teenagers or ‘solitary’ children. At a conscious level, their concerns are over things like, “Is it because she doesn’t fit it?” or, “Is she anti-social?” or, worse still, “Is she autistic?” But, unconsciously and at a deep, biological level, their worry is far less complicated and much more primeval: “How will she ever find a man to have children with if she spends all her time alone?”
By being aware of this basic animal instinct, we can then deconstruct alone time as it relates to us today. By our grandparents’ standards, nothing much of what we own today really belongs to us. Fully 99% of society works for organizations we do not own; those who do own their own companies work for their customers. We are also becoming more credit-driven in the way we live our lives and pursue our dreams. Some dismal philosophers go so far as to say that everything we have is borrowed… including time.
“Little in life is our own,” says Dr Buchholz. “Alonetime is, and, more than that, it offers equal opportunity to leave the limbo of living in the past or being a slave to modernity.” But no one can tell you how to achieve better alone time — the way there is unique to you and you alone. In fact, trying to show you how you can change negative alone time into positive solitaire would probably ruin things for you. Remember that we are talking about a need as basic as food or water. No one can show you how to ‘enjoy’ plain water as a drink. It is something you must either learn to do by yourself or continue to struggle with. Either way, you have to drink it.
As Dr Buchholz says: “The seeking of solutions is just as important as the finding, because the journey is alonetime.”