In our extroverted society, there’s not greater compliment than being called “sociable.” We worship those who are gregarious and genial. We aim to be the “life of the party” who charms with his clever jokes and interesting anecdotes— not the awkward loner shuffling his feet and staring at his phone. Being popular and well-liked is a sign of good character; keeping to yourself is deemed pathological.
Though it is important to build relationships with others, it’s just as important— perhaps even more so— to build a relationship with ourselves. In her classic guide to creative, contemplative living, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests solitude is an oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern world. In one of the most gracefully observed chapters “Moon Shell,” she argues we must wake up from the collective delusion that we are anything but alone:
“We are all in the last analysis, alone. And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about. It is, as the poet Rilke says, ‘not something that one can take or leave. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all. But how much better is it to realize that we are so.'”
Is there anything that fills us with more terror than being alone? Most of us would do anything to avoid being by ourselves: we crowd our calendars with constant busyness, plans and parties; we stay in toxic relationships; we engage in empty-headed chatter and pointless conversations with people we don’t care about. Indeed, when we have no choice but to be alone— all our friends are busy, we’re stuck sick at home— we seek solace in the hypnotizing blue light of our phones. Rather than endure a single moment of soundlessness, we mindlessly scroll through social media in search of cheap entertainment. We can’t imagine going on a walk without headphones or cleaning our apartment without a podcast playing in the background.
In a 1955 passage that is perhaps even more timely today, Lindbergh laments our lost ability to sit still with the self:
“Naturally, how one hates to think of oneself as alone. How one avoids it. It seems to imply rejection or unpopularity. An early wallflower panic still clings to the word. One will be left, one fears, sitting in a straight-backed chair, alone while the popular girls are already chosen and spinning around the dance floor with their hot-palmed partners. We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void. Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone any more. We can do our house-work with soap-opera heroes at our side. Even day-dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life. Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen. It is simply there to fill the vacuum. When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place.”
Despite our distaste for our own company, artists and writers throughout time have understood that silence and solitude are the seedbeds of creativity. The mind needs quiet time to imagine, to invent, to devise and to dream. Magnanimous spirit Brenda Ueland believed inspiration most often visited in idle moments when we were alone and not doing much of anything (“The imagination needs moodling,— long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering,” she wrote in If You Want to Write, her middle finger to the capitalistic cult of productivity).
Not only does alone time nurture the seeds of creativity, it is a means of solidifying the self. In the pandemonium of day-to-day life, our desires and beliefs are drowned out by the ceaseless chatter of the world. But in moments of introspection, we can define our own tastes, develop our own thoughts, make up our own minds about what matters most. Solitude is a source of replenishment and renewal. Like negative space in a painting, it brings balance to the composition of our lives and defines the boundaries of the soul. Life remerges more vital, more vibrant when we’re alone:
“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. For me, the break is the most difficult. Parting is inevitably painful, even for a short time. It is like an amputation, I feel. A limb is being torn off, without which I shall be unable to function. 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. It is as if in parting one did actually lose an arm. And then, like the starfish, one grows it anew: one is whole again, complete and round — more whole, even than before, when the other people had pieces of one.”
What does it mean to be lonely? Common belief says we’re lonely when we’re alone. But as any one who has felt companionless despite being at a crowded party knows, loneliness has nothing to do with physical aloneness— loneliness is not an estrangement from others, but rather, an estrangement from self.
When we’re lonely, we feel like Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a deserted island far from our fellows. If we want to cross the vast ocean of space between ourselves and other people (to “only connect” as E.M. Forester implored over a century ago), we must explore the frontier of the self. We can only befriend others if we first befriend ourselves. As Lindbergh writes:
“For it is not physical solitude that actually separates one from other men, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others. How often in a large city, shaking hands with my friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us. Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us— or having found them dry. Only when one is connected to one’s core is one connected to others.”
How do we recenter ourselves when we feel pulled in a million directions by the world? For Lindbergh, the solution is solitude. No matter how seemingly indulgent, “every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day.” In a genius reframing of Virginia Woolf’s feminist masterwork, Lindbergh declares all women must have “time of their own”:
“…the answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. Women’s life today is tending more and more toward the state William James describes so well in the German word, ‘Zerrissenheit’— ‘torn-to-pieces-hood.’ She cannot live perpetually in ‘Zerrissenheit.’ She will be shattered into a thousand pieces. On the contrary, she must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day— like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”
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