Being alone is one of society’s great anxieties. The idea of solitude scares us so much that people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their own thoughts. But why is it that everyone is so scared of solitude?
A big part of this fear of being alone is the confusion that exists between loneliness and solitude. We seem to think that they’re one and the same thing, but as existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich put it so eloquently, “Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
Through the ages many great thinkers and artists from Aristotle to Schopenhauer, Einstein to Hemmingway, and actors like Audrey Hepburn have celebrated the power of spending time alone. It is said that solitude fosters creativity because it helps us to make sense of the crazy world we live in by giving the mind a chance to connect the dots of abstract and seemingly disparate thoughts.
But it’s not just our creativity that benefits from solitude, but also personal growth. Most of my travels I have done alone, the weeks spent travelling on a bus by myself, walking around foreign cities with just my own thoughts have taught me a lot about myself.
Aside from loneliness, perhaps the greatest fear people have of spending time on their own is that we are scared of what lurks inside our minds, those dark little corners that we conveniently ignore by filling our lives with constant noise. We don’t allow ourselves to stop to mull over our issues, think them through and deal with them, or at least attempt to. As a result psychologists’ rooms are brimming with people who are afraid to face their inner demons, but are forced to do it anyway by these professionals from whom they seek help and guidance, by turning their gaze inward.
We’ve become addicted to this noise, and it’s a fallacy that we have to be connected and in touch all the time, that the choice to disengage is one antisocial step closer to becoming a hermit. However, as Maria Popova points out in her essay on the power of being alone, solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial, it actually enables us to connect better with others. She argues that by becoming more comfortable with whom we are deep down inside, we free up some of our capacity to let others in. Through all the noise we seem to miss the freedom that comes with solitude.
Despite all the benefits solitude brings, we still view it with a level of disdain and label those who choose to be alone with pity and often label them either crazy or sociopaths, or both. It’s like the idea that some people choose to be alone is somehow unfathomable to society at large. According to author Sarah Maitland we fear those who are different, people who make choices that don’t conform to societal norms, and claims that many of society’s problems, including its attitude towards solitude are based on paradoxical paradigms. On the one hand society praises extroverted groupthink, yet at the same time people admire intellectuals, artists and adventurers who spend most of their time, and create some of their greatest work, in solitude. We’re sent these mixed messages about being alone and it adds to the confusion, which further strengthens fear, says Maitland.
I am in my mid-30s and I’m alone. It’s not because I can’t get a girlfriend, but because I choose to be; it’s what I need in my life right now. Sure I’m lonely sometimes, but so are people in relationships. I won’t be alone forever, we are social beings after all, but for now I embrace “the glory of being alone,” and it’s awesome.