‘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.