I was never less alone than when by myself. — Edward Gibbon
I have long known that I need solitude. In solitude, I feel most myself; it is when I can relax, think, plan, and imagine freely, undisturbed and undistracted by the presence of others. As an introvert, I may need this time more than some, but I believe that everyone can benefit from time spend in solitude – which I define here as not merely being by yourself, but also being away from the Internet, television, phones, and even books. Some of the benefits and joys of solitude:
- Solitude allows us to step aside from the many inputs that are coming toward us throughout the day. It provides a necessary pause in our lives, a time to catch our breath before moving on.
- Solitude gives us space to reflect on our lives, learn from our mistakes, and think for ourselves, rather than merely reading or listening to what other people are thinking. We can deal with issues that we may have been ignoring.
- In solitude, we can learn to enjoy our own company and to be happy with ourselves rather than looking to other people or social media to keep us entertained.
- Solitude is a time when we can practice activities such as writing, exercise, meditation, creating art, or learning new skills.
Solitude is also the perfect time for us to become more aware of the more-than-human world that surrounds us. For when we use the word “alone”, we are really only referring to a lack of human company. In fact, there is probably no place on Earth where we can be completely alone. Wherever we go, there are some non-human beings there with us – grasses, trees, birds, insects, other mammals, fungi, the bacteria that we cannot see, as well as non-living things, such as rocks, drifting clouds, sunlight, the air we breathe, and the water we drink.
It doesn’t matter where we live in the human world, or how connected or disconnected we feel from our fellow humans, we cannot help but be a part of this community of nature. These non-humans are our companions on our planet’s journey through space. We depend upon them for our health, and for the health of the ecosystems in which we live. Without them, we would not exist, and in solitude, we can remind ourselves of this. We can put our purely human concerns in a larger context. And if we are feeling “alone” and lonely, isolated and disconnected from our human communities, then we can perhaps begin to feel a sense of connection and even companionship with what is not human.
We are perhaps most alone only in our human-centered homes and workspaces. Surrounded by sterilized surfaces, dozens of human-made appliances, closed doors, and covered windows, any other-than-human life may be hard to find. And ironically, even as we become more isolated from the community of nature, many of us are obsessed with being constantly connected to the human world through the Internet, and so we have few or no opportunities for true solitude. Lacking solitude, how can we begin to restore our relationship with the non-human? I often sense that there are many people these days who feel isolated and lonely, and who lack connection and meaning in their lives, and I wonder whether our desire to seek connections through social media (or even worse, through gangs or radical religious groups) is at least partly a response to our isolation from the more-than-human community of nature.
We sometimes have a negative view of those who choose to spend time by themselves: they might be called loners or brooders, described as cold, secretive, or antisocial, or told that they need to come out of their shells or get out more. But some time spent in solitude is essential, whether we are introverts, extroverts, or something in between. It doesn’t mean that we have to become hermits. It simply means that we set aside some time to connect, reflect, and perhaps even find joy in being “by ourselves.”