tom walsh

There is a certain peace in being alone that we simply never shall find if we're always surrounded by other people.  Why, then, are we so often afraid of being alone?  Solitude is really the only state in which we can accomplish the reflection that we need to understand our lives and our selves, and it's in solitude that we're able to develop the strength that allows us to deal with many of life's setbacks and obstacles.  When we're alone we can tap the creative depths of our minds and hearts without the distractions and tangents that are introduced to us by others.  Our aloneness is a healthy, marvelous place, yet we somehow learn to fear it--we somehow learn that if we spend time alone, there's something "wrong" with us.

In my life, solitude has been an extremely valuable asset, though for many years I saw it as a curse.  I simply didn't want to be alone, and I wanted to be with other people.  My very nature, though, was geared towards solitude, for I never really enjoyed many of the things that other people do to avoid being alone; especially difficult for me was the way that alcohol was so often a major part of most "social" gatherings.  Having grown up in a family with an alcoholic parent, I simply didn't want to be around people who were drinking.  

Even as a child, I spent a lot of time alone, reading or drawing or writing, while the rest of my family watched TV (another activity I'm not particularly fond of).  When I was alone as a grown-up, though, I spent most of my time wishing I were with other people rather than taking advantage of my alone time.

There are many things that we can do when we're alone that we simply can't do when we're with other people.  In solitude, we have time for more reading, more reflection, more walks alone, more hiking and camping in places that other people probably wouldn't want to go.  Yes, it is great to share experiences, and the company of our fellow human beings can be one of the most important elements of life, but it's also important that we accept our solitude when we've been gifted with it and use it to fulfill some of our deep needs that can't be filled when we're in groups or even part of a couple.

Some people view other people's solitude as selfishness, as Sarah points out below.  But just as rest and relaxation are necessary to keep ourselves strong and able to deal with our lives, solitude can provide us with a spiritual and emotional rejuvenation that can make us stronger and more resilient in the face of life's challenges.

Not all of us can find the means to spend two weeks alone whenever we feel like it, of course, but solitude doesn't necessarily need to be extravagant or extreme.  Sometimes it's as simple as going into another room with a book and closing the door behind us.  Sometimes, the long walk in the morning can be a balm that soothes our nerves and allows us to ponder life and consider the challenges we're facing.

For me, the solitude is a beautiful experience in itself, but it also helps to strengthen other experiences.  Just as the best meals I've ever had have come after times of having very little to eat, some of the best times I've spent with others have come after time that I've spent alone.  When I've spent time in solitude, I tend to listen more when I'm with others, and I tend to appreciate their presence more.  I don't feel a need to talk as much, and I'm able to just be with the other people without having any expectations or preconceived ideas of how people should act or what they should say.  And I know, when this happens, that it's one of the many benefits of having spent time alone and learning even more how to value myself and be comfortable with myself just as I am.

Why does our society value keeping people in groups as much as possible?  In part, it's because when we're in groups, we spend more money.  But also, being with other people helps us to deal with many of our fears of being alone in life, our fears that we're somehow not good enough, somehow rejected by our fellow human beings.  Many years ago, Blaise Pascal said that all of our miseries result from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone, which implies that we do not feel comfortable being alone with our own thoughts.

Being with a group--or even with just one other person--means that we never have to experience our thoughts as deeply as we can, or as fully as we can.  Our thoughts frighten us, because when we do sit alone in a quiet room, we sometimes find ourselves thinking things that we don't necessarily want to think--but that we need to think if we're ever going to work our ways past the fears and insecurities that those thoughts imply.  Being alone allows us time to work our ways through our thoughts and feelings, and we can come out of our aloneness with a new resolve, with a new sense of strength that can come only from knowing ourselves a bit better and feeling more confident of what we want and our ability to fulfill our own wishes.

Solitude is within our reach almost all the time.  Of course, I'm not going to find a lot of solitude when I'm in my classroom with 25 students, or if I'm working in a store serving customers constantly.  But if we consciously search out the moments of solitude that can help to rejuvenate us--those few minutes that we can spend completely with ourselves and our own thoughts--then we can use solitude to make our lives richer and fuller.  And even in the crowds, according to Emerson, solitude is within our reach:  the great person, he says, is the one "who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."  It's a matter of perspective, and a matter of effort, but the solitude we crave and need is always available to us.

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Deliberately seeking solitude--quality time spent away
from family and friends--may seem selfish.  It is not.
Solitude is as necessary for our creative spirits to develop
and flourish as are sleep and food for our bodies to survive.

Sarah Ban Breathnach



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It is a difficult lesson to learn today--to leave one's
friends and family and deliberately practice the art
of solitude for an hour or a day or a week.  And yet,
once it is done, I find there is a quality to being
alone that is incredibly precious.  Life rushes back
into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh