Solitude: Why We Need More of It
I should probably have an entire section of this blog dedicated to Maggie Nelson, particularly her essay Bluets, which I reference quite often. In keeping with that spirit, I decided to contemplate and share some thoughts on solitude based a sentiment the penned so poignantly:
“Loneliness is solitude with a problem.”
So simple. Such an easy concept but something I think we all struggle with from time to time. Why is it that we're so afraid to be alone with our thoughts? Speaking as someone born and raised in America's east coast, is it a regional cultural phenomenon? I've spent a great deal of my life running from harmful and unpleasant thoughts instead of dwelling on them for an appropriate time and trying to figure out the root cause. By not paying them the mind they need, I let them fester and become toxic, affecting my personality, my relationships, and my well-being. I've pushed positive thoughts and creative ideas to the side because the thought of spending the time to implement them seemed overwhelming. Self-care is an important movement but I feel like an important piece of it is being left out: we need to spend more time with our thoughts.
Ester Buccholz urged for solitude in her 1997 work, The Call of Solitude. Over 20 years later, it's still a significant issue. "We live in a society that worships independence yet deeply fears alienation: our era is sped-up and overconnected," she says. Now, I'm not a psychiatrist, a scientist, or any other credentialed professional that would allow me to be an accredited thought leader in this particular field. (Or any, for that matter.) However, aloneness is an idea I've wrestled with for most of my life and along the way, I've learned a thing or two about how to deal with it.
Solitude is the time we've made a choice to be alone for positive reasons. Loneliness is alienation, whether unintentionally, or out of fear.
Sunday mornings are my time to relish in my aloneness. To sit on my stoop and drink a cup of coffee from the shop across the street, to wake up early and go for a stroll down Frankford Ave and savor the seemingly deserted feeling of those sleepy morning hours when it's almost as if most of the city hasn't woken up yet. Solitude is the time we've made a choice to be alone for positive reasons. Loneliness is alienation, whether unintentionally, or out of fear. Being by myself is something that used to frighten me, and still does at times. But thoughts are powerful. When left unchecked, they can turn into actions. Those actions can seem overwhelming and unintentionally become habits. Unfortunately, this tends to be truer for the negative thoughts that come along so it's important that we stop them in their tracks.
Everyone knows Socrates' famous words, "know thyself." I love Lao Tzu's expansion on that sentiment when he said, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” When we know ourselves, we can make more informed decisions. We can be more intentional about the people we surround ourselves with, and not get lost in petty comparisons. (Something that's particularly difficult in this "Instagram Culture.") Who would know what's best for you other than yourself? But how are you supposed to know when you're essentially alienated from that makes you.... well, YOU?
Not sure where to start? I'm going to share some of the ways in which I've gotten to know myself better. When I keep up with these, I like the woman I'm "hanging out with." She's self-assured, strong. A bit of a temper but when focused, knows how to prioritize. Side note: you should never be ashamed to discuss your positive traits.
- Take yourself on a dinner date. Don't rush, don't be embarrassed to be eating by yourself. Don't be afraid to treat yourself. Bring along a book if you'd like, perhaps Bluets? (I talk about it enough.) Watch others and think about yourself in the context of the room. How do you fit in? How do you stand out? Get comfortable with yourself and pay attention to the way you interact with the server, how you act in general with no one else around. In that small way, you'll learn so much about yourself.
- Wake up extra early and go somewhere spectacular to watch the sunrise. I feel like my best times spent alone are when they start with my grudgingly rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I'm more likely to consider my thoughts philosophically when I'm still only half-conscious. Sunrises are symbolic. They represent a new day and a fresh beginning. Make a list of tiny ways you can improve yourself throughout the next 24 hours: smiling at a stranger, sharing your lunch with a homeless person, taking time to deep clean one small part of your home, or even buying yourself a special treat like a latte instead of your usual regular coffee.
- Turn off your phone and draw yourself a bath. Don't even bring a book with you. You should try to engage in some meditative practices— I feel like especially if you're starting out, the best meditations come about when you try to not focus on them so hard. Think about the way the water feels on your skin, the warmth that surrounds you. Focusing on sensations will distract from your thoughts and in that way, you can truly clear your mind to make room for some reflection afterwards.
- Journal, journal, journal. This is a pretty self-explanatory one but I will add that I'm a huge advocate for stream of consciousness writing. Let the words flow freely from your pen, or pencil, or marker, or whatever you choose to use. I prefer writing instead of typing because I feel more of a personal connection but do whatever makes you comfortable.
We can be lonely without actually being alone.
One thing to be aware of is the difference between solitude and loneliness. I outlined my thoughts on this a bit above but I feel that the fact that we can be lonely without actually being alone is worth mentioning. I've felt incredibly alone on family holidays, in groups of friends, or even in a one-on-one setting. Probably the biggest reason for this is that we put up walls. We have our guard up, even when we know we shouldn't. Not to over-simplify this cause, but when we're comfortable with who we are, this feeling can be mitigated. How? When we're confident in ourselves, others can no longer hold undue power over us. We're less likely to allow their thoughts and actions to influence us, we're less afraid of being hurt when we know our boundaries and can find the strength within ourselves to speak up when we feel that we're being treated unfairly, or that others are crossing those boundaries.
What do you think? You should never be ashamed or afraid to work on yourself, and spending time alone— with intention— is a great place to start. I've enjoyed getting to know myself and think you will as well. Now go draw yourself a bath!