The Virtues of Solitude
“Nothing is better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man's ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company”. - Seneca
Early on in 2017, having reached a strange sort of crossroads, I booked a room in the countryside and spent a month there was very little human contact. In the practical sense, I didn’t get a tremendous amount done. I had just finished reading Walden for the third time, and Thoreau's words had sunk into my bones. Mostly, I read, wrote, and took a lot of long walks.
But psychologically, the solitude made it one of the most productive periods in my life. That length of time alone changed how I related to myself, how I thought and how I managed my emotions. While I was unhappy much of the time for reasons unrelated to the situation, it was a time of growing up and developing as a person. Perhaps most important of all, that month taught me the value of solitude.
These days, I spend a hell of a lot of time alone. I work alone, primarily for people I’ve never met. I live with my cat. I go on holiday and travel alone. I think nothing of going out to eat or for drinks on my own and do it almost every day. I go to music festivals and concerts alone (in August I traveled for 20 hours to see a concert on my own. On the way back to where I was staying, an Uber driver told me I was crazy for that but admitted he sometimes went to football matches alone and was kind of embarrassed about it.)
Last year I spent Christmas on my own. During my time at university, I often took the train up to London to walk around art galleries by myself. I go for walks and to the beach and to coffee shops and the cinema and to events on my own.
For the most part, society (at least, in the countries I have lived in) condemns solitude.
The person dining alone is to be pitied. The long-term singleton clearly has something wrong with them. The kid reading under a tree must struggle to make friends. The solitary dweller is a suspicious figure.
Solitude becomes something to be feared. We surround ourselves with superficial acquaintances and fill every spare moment with dinner parties, networking events, meetups, nights out, gatherings. We communicate constantly, sharing everything. We build our networks and work on relationships to the point that we lose touch with ourselves.
Someone once told me that the best heuristic to decide if you should date someone is to ask yourself whether you’d be comfortable spending twenty minutes sat in silence in a room with them.
But I think a far more important question we should all consider is whether we’d be willing to sit by ourselves in a room, in silence, not really doing anything for 20 minutes. Amy Morin writes in a Forbes article that ‘The busier you are, the more likely you are to benefit from some quiet time.'
We are all molded by our social situation. Much of our behavior is dictated by social proof. We see what those around us think, do, believe, desire, look like and pursue, and we mimic it. Usually, that process is unconscious.
In Emotion: A Very Short Introduction, Dylan Evans points out that our emotions exist not just to motivate us to take particular actions, but also to pass on information to others. In other words, we don’t just feel for the sake of feeling - we feel so that others might also feel.
Being alone changes that, even if only in the short term. It disconnects us from our usual social roles, laden with labels and assumptions and lets us reassess what we want. I think part of why I felt I grew up a lot during the month alone, is that I stopped thinking of myself in terms of how other people saw me. I started to shake off my teenage habit of reworking my entire personality to suit whoever I was with.
In psychology, there's a concept called personal fable theory wherein people - usually adolescents - behave as if watched by an imaginary audience at all times. One way to shake that off is by getting away from any sort of audience, even if only for a short time.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Art of Communicating:
‘We think that with all our technological devices we can connect, but this is an illusion. In daily life, we're disconnected from ourselves. We walk, but we don't know that we’re walking. We're here, but we don't know that we're here. We're alive, but we don't know that we’re alive. Throughout the day, we lose ourselves...To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act. You sit down and stop that state of being lost, of not being yourself.’
Spending a lot of time alone forces you to take control of your life.
It forces you to learn to manage your own emotions. It teaches you to sit and thrash out problems yourself without turning to someone else.
For me, freedom comes down to the ability to handle shit on your own. To confront who you are and just be. To enjoy a beautiful moment without needing to immediately share it. It comes down to an ability to be your own friend and make peace with silence.
As a line from what I consider to be one of the most beautiful songs ever written goes, ‘When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend/ I get a coffee and the paper; have my own conversations/ With the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection.’ *
Or as Virginia Woolf similarly wrote in The Waves, 'How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.'
Thinking and growing and learning require space to think and synthesize. As helpful as it is to discuss our ideas and find inspiration in others, good ideas and decisions seem to come from quiet meditation - from quality time with yourself.
The ideas and decisions that have led me to where I am in my life and work mostly came from solitary contemplation. From sitting alone on a balcony in Tel Aviv, or wandering through the countryside in Italy, or taking walks down to the beach near my flat at night. From carving out the space to muck around in creative sandboxes. Albert Camus wrote in his notebook:
'Do not be afraid of spending quality time by yourself. Find meaning or don’t find meaning but 'steal' some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you antisocial or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. And you need to be.'
Of course, there’s a big difference between willful solitude and loneliness. We all need people. Even in prison, solitary confinement is considered the ultimate punishment (a prison inspection report I recently read described it as ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading.')
Loneliness is a state of mind.
Plenty of people are surrounded by friends, family and co-workers yet feel lonely because they can’t connect with them. Plenty of people spend the majority of their time alone yet rarely feel lonely.
We all need our families, friends, mentors, collaborators etc. I joined a coworking space earlier this year because I was going a week at a time without speaking to anyone. This week, I'm in Malta with my best friend because, as much as solo travel is fun and valuable, sometimes it's nice to share a new place with someone.
As Seneca also wrote in one of his letters, ‘Without a ruler to be it against, you won't make the crooked straight.’ Although that line can be interpreted in a few ways, I view it as being about the importance of spending time with smart people who can show us what a good life looks like.
Several times in my life, I have taken solitude too far and ended up miserable. Several times in my life, I have been alone a lot but not out of choice, and that too was miserable. And living alone makes it a little too easy to fall into bad habits - although it also teaches you the strength to escape them.
The Stoics taught of the Inner Citadel, and many other philosophers have described similar concepts.
It's the idea of having a study internal fortress that remains strong no matter what the people around us do, no matter what our circumstances are. That's what Seneca is talking about when he writes that we need the ability to spend time in our own company.
If we lack that capability, we can't really have healthy relationships with other people. Relationships become a way of avoiding the anxiety an empty room provokes, not a way of enriching our lives and the lives of the people we spend time with. They become a means of avoiding sources of friction.
Meditation has become fashionable lately. While the benefits of it are myriad, I think the popularity comes down to finding a justification for quiet time alone.
Relying on other people to modulate our emotions puts us in a fragile state. Relationships end, people are lost, or move away, or take a new path which makes them hard to relate to. At the end of the day, our only dependable constant is ourselves.
*Apparently I can't write anything these days without referencing Conor Oberst.