Loneliness is a feeling when you wish someone else were with you. Solitude is wanting the company of one—yourself. Loneliness is a state of mind that thrives most in the midst of crowds. Solitude is a physical and mental state of choice.
Stories of religious leaders and deep thinkers suggest that alone time is time well spent. After Jesus was baptized and before beginning his ministry of teaching, he spent 40 days praying in the wilderness. Buddha attained enlightenment after years of silence and meditation. Henry David Thoreau spent two years in a one-room cabin reflecting upon simple living in the glory of nature. In her book, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh meditates on youth and age; love and marriage; and solitude.
In today’s world, or more fairly stated, in Western culture, the art of solitude, the ability to be content in one’s singular company is undervalued. Solitude is certainly not something most of us put on our list of aspirations. In a world of digital citizenship and 24/7 social interaction, our brain seldom gets recess. Cut off from others we worry we are missing out. Seeing a man or a woman at a restaurant having a meal by themselves stirs up feelings of sympathy. A friend traveling alone and we may think she couldn’t find anyone to go with her? When in actuality, our perception filtered through a judging mind can’t fathom a choice to be alone.
In a 2014 study at the University of Virginia, a quarter of the women participants and two-thirds of the men chose electric shock rather than solitude, alone with their thoughts. We wear our headphones when we walk; we play with our phone when we sit. We listen to NPR in the car. We do every darn thing we can to avoid being alone with our thoughts. (The Atlantic)
Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist, contends that our anti-solitude mentality is increasingly turning us into tight-knitted groups intolerant of those different from us. In A Dangerous Place to Be: Identity, Conflict, and Trauma in Higher Education, co-authored with David Levine, the authors link our lack of alone time to the increasing ideological conflicts at higher educational institutions. “We’re drawn to identity-markers and to groups that help us define [ourselves]. In the simplest terms, this means using others to fill out our identities, rather than relying on something internal [where our authentic self resides], something that comes from within.” Building on a concept called the “capacity to be alone,” Bowker states: “You have to have…the ability to know that you’re gonna survive, that you’re gonna be okay if you’re not supported by [your] group.” This group identity is alive and well on Facebook.
Thomas Merton in Thoughts and Solitude (1956) writes with the wisdom of a man who is no stranger to self-reflection: “When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, tenability to love; for their capacity for self-determination. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude, it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”
Amy Morin, a psychotherapist, lists science-backed benefits of solitude on her website. Alone time increases empathy for people different from yourself. We are more productive when we have a balance between Me-Time and their time. It builds mental strength and increases creativity. It reduces behavior problems in kids and helps us know ourselves better. (Science Direct)
Times alone were in abundance in my childhood years. Thinking back, this was a time of princess fantasies juxtaposed with fear and worries. For sure, it wasn’t a look into the eyes of my soul connecting with the person I might one day become. Those days came much later. Einstein said, “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” In solitude, our fears are replaced with what to get rid of in our thinking. It’s a time of contemplation, sorting, letting go, and hopefully looking back finding we’ve grown in self-control and unselfishness.
Our inner-speak that we hear in solitude is the voice of the eternal. We listen for it when we pray or meditate. It could be an answer to a problem or another way of looking at a situation. Sticking a notepad and a pencil in my pocket instead of the phone before a walk tells whose voice I long to hear. Yet too often I walk submerged in repetitive thoughts so the eternal gets a busy signal. Perhaps aging will assist me, bringing my attention to the diminishing sand in the hourglass.
Unlike meditation where we seek to clear our mind, solitude is space to look back and find we are no longer the person we were at 30. We see and forgive the younger us for her lack of knowing. She did the best she knew how. With longer hindsight, we learn to hold our tongue and listen with the heart instead of the brain ever eager to share opinions. In this place the mind gains strength and learns to lean on itself. We come into the world alone and we leave it alone. Independence of mind and spirt fosters serenity. Peace found within whispers in the sounds of silence. At day’s end, what matters most is the relationship we have with ourselves.
The Sound of Silence
Simon & Garfunkel
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Within the sound of silence
In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by
The flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence.”
Simon wrote “The Sounds of Silence” at the age of 21 still living with his parents. He wrote it sitting alone in the bathroom with no great hopes for it. (Classic Rock)