On Solitude

‘The answer is not in the feverish pursuit of centrifugal activities which only lead in the end to fragmentation. Woman’s life today is tending more and more towards the state William James describes so well in the German word “Zerissenheit, torn-to-pieces-hood.” She cannot live perpetually in “Zerissenheit.” 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 a great work. But it should be something of one’s own…. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.’

 

The question, in case you were wondering, was how to nourish the soul. This quotation comes from a short book of essays I read before Christmas entitled Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. They were first published in 1955, hence the lack of self-consciousness with which the narrator talks specifically about women, but the message is startlingly contemporary. The narrator – a writer and a mother of five children – is spending two weeks mostly alone on an island, and she uses the shells she finds on the beach as symbols for the spiritual lessons she experiences. The moon shell reminds her of her need for solitude, for replenishing privacy, in the midst of a culture that actively guards against it. ‘What a commentary on our civilisation, when being alone is considered suspect; when one has to apologise for it, make excuses, hide the fact that one practices it – like a secret vice!’ she exclaims. It is only in being alone that we rediscover ourselves, our inner core, and without contact to our core, we can have no genuine contact with others.

These essays arrived very pertinently for me, after a string of letters in Christmas cards concerning families who seemed to do nothing but travel around the world visiting others in a whirl of sociability. I was feeling inadequate (what did I do with my time?) but also defensive. After an era in which I felt I had given excessively to others, bringing up my child and teaching, I had spent several years as much on my own as it was possible to be. What Anne Morrow Lindbergh doesn’t say is that you can gain a taste for solitude and then not want to give it up. I remember so well how I had felt starved of being alone, the only space in which I could experience the true relaxation of self-forgetfulness, where I could put aside concern for others, whose silent insistence seemed so much louder to me than the voice of my own needs.

For me, sociability can feel like the glacial force of social control, with its injunction to be seen to be like others. You can feel it in the pressure with which others urge you to do as they do, to like what they like. Christmas, the most sociable time of the year, is subtly controlling, obliging us to conform to the rule of tradition. Not to want to be social at such times is to be perverse, to be harbouring dark and potentially dangerous desires. When it may just be that too much sociability is suffocation, a centrifugal force that can bend me out of shape and dissipate my energies.

I remind myself that there are positive reasons why people encourage the naturally solitary out of their caves. They want to offer acceptance, inclusion, the warmth of belonging, all of which are the converse of a fear of being abandoned and alone, the fear of being without support or distraction or resources that lies at the root of all childhood anxieties. Then some people like to be needed, and the self-sufficient can look like a snub to what they have to offer, a rebuke to their loving natures. And the search for solitude can indeed harbour fears and anxieties about the failure of others to meet our needs, out of inattentiveness, indifference or even downright hostility. When trust in the universe is low, it can seem infinitely safer not to risk one’s vulnerability in the rough-edged comfort of other people. No matter how much others want to extend the supportive embrace of inclusion, one never feels so alone as in a crowd, when the crowd is in a very different emotional place. To feel properly abandoned requires at least one other person to be there in the first place, to do the abandoning.

The solitude that Anne Morrow Lindburgh envisages seems so much more glorious than the empty chatter of sociability. The ideal of quiet, focused time spent looking inward in the safe haven of creativity sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But so often, being alone isn’t like that at all. It can be a space full of furtive restlessness and futility, in which attempts at steady creative work come to nothing more than staring into the middle distance. And it can be worse than that: who hasn’t experienced the disconcerting spiral of thoughts tumbling out of control into negativity and apocalypse? Who hasn’t at one point or another imagined their own funeral, or the loss of loved ones, or the failure of all cherished endeavours? Being alone is a way to open the door onto the inner life, but if we have been squishing down unpleasant thoughts or feelings, they will be the first to rush out and colour our solitude. Getting in touch with oneself is inevitably as much about rediscovering the dominance of the bad as establishing revitalising contact with the good. Those years I spent alone were often uncomfortable and disturbing, as the resentment and misery of tending always and endlessly to others finally had the chance to be felt. Like a cat I wanted to hide away and lick my wounds in part at least because I was ashamed of being wounded, and not like all those other bright, jolly, achieving people being sociable without effort.

But I never wanted to give my solitude up, or swap it for the distraction of others. At least the difficulties I encountered in it were fully mine. It helped a lot when I read Elaine Aron’s writings about highly sensitive people and realised that the term described me perfectly. I do need hours and hours to process time spent in the company of others, and the amount of time I can spend decreases rapidly when loud noise, bright lights or other kinds of stimuli are involved. I took strength from Thoreau’s unwavering conviction that he needed ‘wide margins’ to his day. And then along comes an Anne Morrow Lindburgh just when I need her, to remind me that the desire for solitude is a healthy one, that mental health is hard to maintain if we do not, or cannot, find time to be contentedly alone. I recognise that I will always be a person who needs to be alone, but the more I understand and accept my urge for solitude, the easier it may seem to be with other people. The better I know myself the more chance I have of becoming what Lindburgh describes as an ‘end towards which we could strive – the still axis within the revolving wheel of relationships, obligations and activities.’ A way, in other words, to carry my solitude around with me, and never feel like I have to give it up.

 

46 thoughts on “On Solitude

  1. I have loved that book and turned to it many times over the years, as I too require much solitude and often feel guilty about it. And Elaine Aron’s book was a lifesaver when I was raising my son, and trying to figure HIM out🙂

    This post was both refreshing and reassuring to me. Every year during the holidays I still chide myself because I prefer the solitude (or time with my immediate family) to throngs of revelers.

    BTW, I’ve also read and re-read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries. You might find them interesting as well.

    • Becca – I didn’t realise before I posted this how many people loved this book. But I really understand why. I went to the library yesterday and found the first of Anne Lindbergh’s diaries, which I think is the one containing the account of her son’s kidnapping. She does seem such a fascinating person. Holidays really do push a person to the limits of their sociability, and I think that this is the case for everyone – we all do just about as much as we can. I had a lovely Christmas but ran into the wall either side of it. What can you do? Well, I’m working on just accepting myself limitations and all – it seems a pragmatic step!🙂

  2. I loved this post, Litlove, particularly your observation that abandonment does in fact require at least one other person to have been there in the first place. And yet, it is also true that one of the first things that tends to try to get one’s attention, in solitude, are the ways in which we have abandoned ourselves. It’s far easier for most people to focus on the betrayals committed by other people, and to stay out there in the noisy world of external abandonments, never realizing that these mirror self-abandonment.

    • Oh David, you speak the truth there. In fact, the only abandonment we truly feel is self-abandonment. Otherwise the experience is simply one of people leaving before returning in the usual ebb and flow of things. It takes our own psyches to see ourselves as abandon-able, as people to be run away from in an excruciatingly personal fashion. You’re so right that it’s one of the first things to come up to be dealt with.

  3. Lovely post. I read this book many years ago when I was only in my 20s and liked it then but think I’d appreciate it even more now. You know Lindbergh is the wife of Charles Lindbergh, was a well-known author and an aviator in her own right. An amazing woman in many respects.

    • Stefanie, I didn’t know anything much about Anne Morrow Lindbergh until the comments here got me interested. Now I have one of her volumes of diaries out of the library and a list of other possible books to read about her! Gift from the Sea was a real delight and I can certainly imagine myself rereading it in years to come.

    • It IS tiring! I’m so glad to know I’m not the only person to feel that way. And many congratulations on the wall – will you be posting a picture of it?

  4. A very Happy New Year to you, litlove! As always, you write something that chimes with me, and thanks for another good recommendation. The older I get, the more I cherish the wisdom of the oracle: Know Thyself. Sometimes that’s simply a question of knowing how far out of the cave you want to be at any given time – and then allowing yourself to go with that instead of feeling pressured to get out in the throng just because other people are out playing. I don’t know where this idea came from that somehow extrovert is “good/sociable”, introvert is “bad/unsociable” – actually, the more self-confident I’ve become the more I admit to being an introvert. Like many introverts, I’m pretty sociable. I just need time alone too. I confess to feeling a little troubled by people who claim they don’t!

    • Deborah you are so right that it all boils down to sensible, pragmatic self-awareness – accepting who we are and what we need and allowing ourselves to have that. It sounds simple, doesn’t it, and yet in practice it can be so hard! I really like what you say about being a sociable introvert. I love people and am fascinated by them – but almost for that very reason, I need them in little doses. Quite agree about people who never want to be alone – I can’t see that’s any healthier!

  5. Great post.

    I spent eight days this summer at a silent retreat, dreading every minute of it. By the end, it was difficult to leave…and I’m now much more aware of how noisy the world is and how much verbiage and energy is wasted.

    • Oh broadside, I have so often been tempted to go on a retreat but I have always had the excuse of family to prevent me from considering it properly. I’m fascinated and a bit afraid of the thought! But one day I will have to do it, just to see what happens.

  6. Beautiful post, Litlove.
    I have this book but not read it yet. I think I should.
    I know exactly what you mean. I basically refuel on my own and can get almost depressed when constantly around other people. The thing is people seem to like my company which makes it tricky. That’s why I’m glad I can work from home occasionally. I feel there are too many people who suck ones energy even when you do not interact much.
    I don’t like small talk but luckily there are many events involving people where there is no small talk. I just hate being forced.
    Decidedly, I don’t see how I could really nourish my soul when being in the presence of others too often.

    • Caroline, I have this theory that it’s the people who really do care for and about others who get exhausted by them. It must be easy being sociable if you were actually indifferent to the pains and pleasures of others. I can quite see why you’d want to work from home (who wouldn’t??) and I’m right with you in needing time to recharge. Do read Gifts from the Sea; it is gentle and charming and wise.

  7. I actually worry about others who always seem to need to be around people. I’ve always craved solitude and felt that it restored me in a way that nothing else can. Maybe growing up the youngest of nine children, I didn’t get enough of it and that is why it is so precious to me today. I love what you’ve written here.

    • Kathleen, I completely agree. As for being the youngest of nine, my goodness! What parties you must have at festivals and holidays! And no wonder you crave a little alone time.

    • Oh Emma, what great lyrics those are! The French do have a way with those sorts of, well, what would be middle-of-the-road songs in the UK, that are altogether more charming and substantial and entertaining in French.

  8. This is such a wonderful post, Litlove, and I am so happy you posted an excerpt from the book as well as your insights on solitude. I, too, find that I need a lot of alone time, processing, reading, and being reflective. I do enjoy being around other people, but then I need to go retreat into solitude. And I often feel guilty or “odd: because being alone is seen as unusual in today’s world. One of my best friends is such an extrovert and always likes other people around, and he can’t understand my need to be alone. He often teases me in a good natured fashion about my desperate need to be alone, but I just tell him that he can’t sympathize because he doesn’t have this need like I do! And I totally understand how you feel when comparing yourself to other people who seem to be on the move constantly. It is hard to see value in being alone when we are bombarded with messages that is best to be on the move.

    Thank you for explaining your thoughts on this idea of being alone. I appreciate how you expressed everything here. And of course, I must check this book out!

    • Ali, isn’t it hard when friends just don’t get it and feel the need to niggle you about it, even though they mean it good-naturedly? I never mind other people’s need to be sociable, so long as they repay the compliment and allow me to be myself. It’s all part of that insidious insistance that we should all be party animals. Mind you, that does make me dig my heels in now, and more so the older I get!🙂 We introverts have to stick together and gain strength from the fact so many of us really do need to recharge in peace. If you come across Gift from the Sea do try it – it’s a really lovely book.

  9. I loved this book as well…it sits inside my glass secretary where all the lifelong keepers rest. It took me a long time to embrace my need to be alone…like Kathleen, I worry more about those who need to be going all the time and with other people. Only a truly self-confident person can be ok in his/her skin without outside “entertainment.” I think I’ll pull Lindbergh back out tonight🙂 Beautiful post🙂

    • Patti – that’s so interesting what you say about really confident people being okay alone, or rather people who are bien dans sa peau as the French put it so well. I think you’ve got a really good point there. And how nice to think that this book is one of your keepers! I can certainly imagine rereading it again in the future. It was delightful.

  10. Lovely post for this season!! The pressures to be with many others for new year’s Eve etc are considerable. I too get quickly peopled out, and wonder whether it was part personality and in a slightly different but related way to Kathleen, being the first of ten children!! Now I love some solitude.

    Discovered AML’s book at a retreat a few years ago, It was chosen as the text for reflection and discussion and was so helpful and well received by the all female participants. So glad you enjoyed it.

    • Oh my, Ana, the first of ten! I think there are probably lots of factors that go into a person’s nature, but I can easily imagine how having a big family might well make you appreciate peace and quiet from time to time! I had no idea how popular or important this book was until I read these comments, but I can certainly see why it’s become a favourite. It was a delight to read.

  11. I loved Gift from the Sea, I love my solitude, but I also like to feel needed–necessary (is that ego?). If not, then please, leave me alone. I think there’s a whole literature out there, of women seeking solitude after lifetimes of giving to others: Kathleen Norris, Annie Erneaux, Elizabeth Gilbert (not precisely, but still), and plenty more. I am going to adopt your statement “the more I understand and accept my urge for solitude, the easier it may seem to be with other people” as my new credo (especially after these people-crammed holidays). Happy, happy New Year, Litlove! May you find all the solitude you need in the coming year.

    • Happy new year to you, too, dear ds! I don’t think the need to feel needed is ego – I think like being alone it is just a part of the personality and it springs from a very loving and generous place. Your comment about a whole literature based on the turning inwards after a long passage of service to others is fascinating, as I hadn’t thought of it that way before. Hmm, that gives me a lot to think about, thank you!

  12. I was wondering when someone would write a post about Gift From The Sea. It was a required reading assignment in one of my high school lit classes and made a lasting impression on me. But it seemed to have faded away (like A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and Nectar In A Sieve by Markandaya – both of which I was required to read as well…thank you dear lit teacher), so I’m happy to see it is alive and well.

    • I didn’t realise, Grad, how beloved this book was until the comments came in! My copy has 50th anniversary edition written on it in gold print, so I figured it was special, but duh! I didn’t exactly put two and two together. Fancy this being a high school lit book – not at all the usual sort of subject, I’d have thought (Hemingway seems much nearer the mark!). I can see why it left an impression though.

  13. I crave and value my solitude. I fear that I, too, might spend too much time alone and resent social activities when they are thrust upon me.
    Lovely post and thank you for being such a wonderful insightful gentle blogger. Happy New Year.

    • Happy new year to you, dear Care! The virtual world is such a wonderful place for people like us, because it’s easy to have just the right amount of contact with others. I never feel claustrophobic in the blog world! Instead I find just the best solidarity and support. Thank you for that.

  14. Not heard of this book before but i shall have to look out for it. As you know, I have written about having spent years living in extreme isolation myself so it sounds right up my street. For another book giving a woman’s perspective on solitude you might also like to try Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence if you haven’t already. Happy new year.

    • Happy New Year, Neil! How nice of you to visit. It’s funny, as I was just checking out your book on amazon the other day, thinking that it might be out now (not quite yet – but I’m looking forward to it very much). There isn’t a big enough literature on the value of solitude, so I’m delighted that you are adding to it. I have read the Sara Maitland, in fact, and found it extremely interesting, so you are right in my ballpark.

  15. From the number of comments, I can tell how popular this topic is and the relevance of your well-written post to your readers. We sure need solitary time, esp. during the holiday Season. “Christmas, the most sociable time of the year, is subtly controlling…” You’re being very diplomatic; to me, it’s blatantly controlling. Like we’re obligated to host family and friends, to ring out good cheers. It’s meaningful if it’s originated from within, rather than imposed from without. That’s why I try to have the “Reading the Season” post every Christmas to enjoy some aloneness in the midst of chaos.

    Anyway, it’s been years since I read Gift From the Sea. Your post just reminds me that it ought to be reread often. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an amazing woman, considering the horror she had to go through when her first- born baby boy was kidnapped and murdered. Recently I saw the movie J. Edgar, it touches on this account of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping… it’s just painful to imagine what pain the Lindbergh had to go through. But she rebounded so strongly … and had all those children after that first baby… and wrote so profusely. I’m sure solitude had a healing effect on her.

    • Arti – oh you are so right about it all being meaningful if it comes from within, rather than being imposed from without. I think it would be good if we could spread Christmas over a week, and any day could be Christmas day if we wanted it to be. Or there could simply be a week of rest and festivities and seeing people as and how we chose. Not that it’s ever going to happen, though! I really liked your idea of Reading the Season, and as you’ll have seen, I followed in your footsteps. It was a great thing to do. Do reread Gifts from the Sea; I was impressed by how pertinent it all still was. I’m also very keen to read more about her life now, and about that kidnapping. I cannot imagine how anyone recovers from that sort of event, but clearly she did, and knew how to keep living with intensity and pleasure. That’s very inspirational.

  16. Lovely post. I do think now I Will go and see if this is on my shelves. I love solitude but what you say about those unpleasant thoughts that come out with too much solitude is entirely true, too! There has to be a happy balance, which I think I’ve not quite worked out yet. I think sometimes solitude is not very valued these days when everyone is always so connected and there is so much noise overpowering everything. Do people not like to be left alone with their own thoughts occasionally?

    • Danielle, I’d love to know what you think of this, and I feel that the author’s voice will chime with your own. She is so honest and unpretentious and real. I can’t understand why people don’t prize and value solitude – I know I do! But it doesn’t seem to be encouraged. I think of this as a problem of the contemporary world, but reading this 50-year-old book, I can see it’s lasted much longer than that!

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