The common cure for loneliness is more connections, yet exercising our solitude is another option. Time alone is inevitable – but can we thrive when it occurs? If we have failed to do so, perhaps it’s because we don’t see the point – we’ve forgotten solitude’s value. So what is solitude for?
In first great use was detailed in the work of the renowned psychiatrist Anthony Storr, who was responding to a 1980s culture where “the telephone is an ever-present threat to privacy” and “the menace of ‘Muzak’ has invaded shops, hotels, aircraft, and even elevators.”
There, in the comparatively peaceful eighties, Storr watched the empty corners in his life fill up with stuff. The menacing Muzak was as an assault on his solitary mind as an Android jiggling with push alerts is on yours and mine.
One can be instructed in society; one is inspired only in solitude.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
A retreat from the crowds has always been necessary for the formulation of bold new ideas, Storr explains, with “nearly all kinds of creative people, in adult life, showing some avoidance of others, some need of solitude.”
True wandering requires a long leash.
The cliche of the painter locked away in a studio, the writer in his cabin, the scientist in her late-night laboratory, is no accident. And Storr’s assertion was backed up in 1994 when the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that teenagers who can’t stand being alone tended to have lessened creative abilities. Only in solitude could those youths develop the creative habits-journalling, doodling, daydreaming-that lead to original work.
Our thinkers may also crave solitude because, as Storr notes, “ideas are sensitive plants which wilt if exposed to premature scrutiny.” But fresh ideas are only one benefit of solitude. Knowledge of the self-or even self-therapy-is another gain. The word “retreat” was traditionally used to mean a beneficial withdrawal, perhaps to as spa or a place of vacation. But contemporary health practitioners largely ignore the benefits of solitude for the distressed: we rush toward group, talk therapy, and any means at all to keep the mentally ill socially occupied.
Although this approach may be beneficial for people with schizophrenia, not everyone needs more socialization. Indeed, many of us are desperately in need of isolation. Removing oneself from the everyday society says Storr, “promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in hurly-burly of day-to-day life.”
The person who knows how to be properly alone is never completely alone. We each carry with us the comfort and knowledge of those we’ve loved and who have cared for us. Without this remembrance, our solitude would be unbearable.
The ability to be alone, then, is anything but a rejection of close bonds.