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No. 146. On solitude

'We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty.'


I am at that time of life when I and many of the people I know find themselves with more solitude than they used to have, more solitude than they expected to have, and often, more solitude than they would like. Death, divorce, the departure of children, retirement from work, all these start arriving at alarmingly short intervals until suddenly you can find yourself wondering what on earth happened to your life.

Whatever age we are, those of us who live alone know that the gaping hole that opens up when you look into solitude can be pretty scary. An obvious solution to this is to fill it, as soon as is reasonably possible. With work, hobbies, volunteering, clubs, sports, bridge, classes, keep fit regimes, committees, friends, gardening, cooking.... All these are potentially enjoyable and valuable pursuits, but too many of them can deny us an opportunity that, if taken, could be even more nourishing.

I have been reading 'Solitude' by Anthony Storr, an exquisitely interesting and thoughtful book that turns many of our assumptions and fears about solitude on their head.

We live in a time, he says, when it is widely believed that a person has to be in an intimate relationship to be happy. He lays much of the blame for this on Freud, who more or less said that every mental ailment could be put down to a person not having a fulfilling sexual relationship. If they did have one, said Freud, well, everything else in life would follow.

Most people these days think that was a bit of an extreme view (and certainly an extraordinary burden to lay at the door of the human race), nevertheless if you look around at our world you will see it reflected everywhere. Ninety per cent of pop songs, a sizable proportion of advertising, the whole marvellous series of Bridget Jones, and the general attitude that there is something a little bit wrong with being single. And a little bit more wrong if you're a single woman (spinster, old maid, on the shelf) than if you're a single man (bachelor, man about town).

'Why is it that so many women in their thirties are single these days?' asks a dinner party guest of Bridget Jones. 'It could be,' says Bridget brightly, 'because underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales'.

There is no question that being in a relationship can give us a great deal - security, on-tap company, someone to share problems with, someone to take care of you if things go wrong, someone for you to take care of, share your day with, go places with, laugh with, cry with, have children with and so on. But stop, what about the broken hearts, bereavements, conflicts, disappointments, irritations, infidelities, divorces, abuses..... And, contrary to the popular idea that a woman needs a man, while a man values his freedom, the research suggests differently. The happiest and healthiest people in our society are married men and single women.

Even a small shift of perspective could lead us to something we rarely do in our culture, to look a bit more closely at the benefits of being alone, whether by choice or circumstance.

For example, what if some psychologist had said a century ago that every mental ailment could be put down to a person not having a fulfilling relationship with themselves and, that if they did, well, everything else in life would follow'? Would we now be placing as much value on spending time alone as we currently give to being with another?

Connection with others is one of the great joys of life, and company is important, but when you look at the fruits of solitude you can start to see how important that is too. Van Gogh was not a party man. Nor is the Dalai Lama. Montaigne, while married, spent a great deal of time alone. Mother Teresa was not married, Nelson Mandela's depth of character developed during years of largely solitary imprisonment, William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, used his time in prison to write - one of his volumes is actually entitled 'The Fruits of Solitude'. And Buddha was not at a family gathering when he became enlightened.

'My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people'

Patricia Highsmith

Creativity, spirituality, inventiveness, deep thought, deep feelings, self knowledge and inner growth...... our access to all these is far greater when we are alone.

When we are alone we often spend time thinking of others, having conversations with them in our heads, remembering who we saw yesterday and who we're going to see tomorrow. When we do that we're not really alone. Loneliness itself is being alone while thinking of others, that is the pain of it.

'If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company'

Jean-Paul Sartre

But most of us know the bliss of being really alone, even if only rarely. Maybe we're tired, maybe we've seen too many people recently, maybe we have small children and a full time job. We go for a long walk in the country, or a solitary train journey. We run the bath and shut the door. We creep into an empty church and sit there in the silence. We retreat to our home, light some candles and quietly rejoice in not having to speak to anyone, worry about anyone, be anything for anyone.

The question is, would we be less frightened of solitude if we could see the real value in it? And if we could see the real value in it, would we use it differently?

'Cherish your solitude. Take trains by yourself to places you have never been. Sleep out alone under the stars. Go so far away that you stop being afraid of not coming back'

Eve Ensler

Try this:

1. Where are you on the spectrum of needing to be with others and needing to be alone? How do you balance these things in your life, and how do you know when you have too much or little of them?

2. If you have very little solitude in your life, how is that for you? Do you fear solitude or do you yearn for it? If you had more of it, how would you use it?

3. If you have a lot of solitude in your life, what do you do with it? Do you spend it in the company of others in your mind, or occupy yourself with television and other media, or do you spend it truly alone with your thoughts and feelings and private endeavours? Do you fear it or do you relish it?

4. If you were to take a fresh look at solitude and how you might use it, what might change?

'I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.'

Henry Miller.

Enjoy being alone this week.

With much love


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