Why do most of us have such a problem with the idea of being alone? Is solitude always a bad thing?
Following on from yesterday’s statistical look at loneliness in the lives of the elderly, here is an extended reflection from Sara Maitland. First, she highlights the questions and paradoxes within our culture:
There is a problem, a serious cultural problem, about solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and wellbeing. In the first place, and rather urgently, the question needs to be asked. And then – possibly, tentatively, over a longer period of time – we need to try to answer it.
The question itself is a little slippery but it looks something like this: how have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world at least, at a cultural moment that values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and, above all, individualism, more highly than ever before, while at the same time those who are autonomous, free and self-fulfilling are terrified of being alone with themselves?
We apparently believe that we own our bodies and should be allowed to do with them more or less anything we choose, from euthanasia to a boob job, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions. We live in a society that sees high self-esteem as a proof of wellbeing, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.
We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.
We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude. We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.
We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is “sad, mad or bad”. Or all three at once.
Maitland explores the history of solitude; her own experience of living alone in a remote part of Scotland for more than twenty years; people’s confused reactions to her confessions about living alone; and Philip Koch’s book Solitude.
She addresses the assumption that the person who freely chooses to be alone must be ‘sad, bad or mad’:
And yet it is not clear why it is so morally reprehensible to choose to live alone. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by the various charges they make, probably because they do not know themselves. For example, the “sad” charge is irrefutable – not because it is true but because it is always based on the assumption that the person announcing that you are, in fact, deeply unhappy has some insider knowledge of your emotional state greater than your own.
If you say, “Well, no actually; I am very happy”, the denial is held to prove the case. Recently, someone trying to console me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy: “You may think you are.” But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it – I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth.
The charges of being mad or bad have more arguability. But the first thing to establish is how much solitude the critics of the practice consider “too much”. At what point do we feel that someone is developing into a dangerous lunatic or a wicked sinner?
Because clearly there is a difference between someone who prefers to bath alone and someone who goes off to live on an uninhabited island that can only be reached during the spring tides; between someone who tells a friend on the telephone that they think they’ll give tonight’s group get-together a miss because they fancy an evening to themselves, and someone who cancels all social engagements for the next four months in order to stay in alone.
If you are writing great books or accomplishing notable feats, we are more likely to admire than criticise your “bravery” and “commitment”. Most of us did not find Ellen MacArthur sad, mad or bad when she broke the single-handed sailing circumnavigation record in 2005, even though it meant being entirely alone for 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds.
There are no statistics for this, but my impression is that we do not mind anyone being alone for one-off occasions – particularly if they are demonstrably sociable the rest of the time – or for a distinct and interesting purpose; what seems to bother us are those individuals who make solitude a significant part of their life and their ideal of happiness.
It’s well worth reading the whole article to help you question your own personal and cultural assumptions about being alone.