February 15, 2022 by Jean
Last week, a local public radio call-in show, Maine Calling, aired a program about solitude. The host introduced the topic by saying that they wanted to focus on positive aspects of being alone in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, a holiday on which people who are alone are often perceived as lonely, miserable, and pitiable. The discussion that followed led me to reflect on my own experiences of solitude.
I assume that most humans need some mix of social connection and solitude in their lives, but the balance point for the right mix of connection and solitude probably varies widely. I know people whose need for connection is strong enough that they feel socially isolated if they go even one day without human interaction. Some of these people also would need to have very busy schedules indeed before they began to crave some time alone. I am closer to the other end of the spectrum. I only need to connect socially with others once or twice a week to keep from feeling isolated, but daily periods of solitude are essential to my mental health. My high needs for solitude have informed my choice to live alone for most of my adult life.
But being alone is not the same thing as solitude. It is possible to be alone without experiencing solitude, and one of the panelists on the radio program noted the long monastic tradition of solitude in community with others. For me, solitude is not about closing myself off; it’s about opening myself up. Solitude creates space and stillness that allows me to open all my senses to the world around me, especially the natural world. Solitude is not goal-driven; it is about being rather than doing. I can experience solitude during a walk around my neighborhood on a summer morning, soaking in the sounds and smells of the natural world and the feel of soft summer air and sunshine on my skin. I experience solitude during my morning strolls through my garden, when I am aware of the smallest changes from the day before. I experienced solitude on a recent day when I sat in my favorite reading chair and let my mind drift as I noticed the particular soft blue of a February sky outside my study window, the way the branches of the eastern hemlock trees were being ruffled by the breeze, and the play of shadows on the tree trunks.
Even for those who live alone, creating the space and stillness for solitude can be challenging. During my years working long hours as a busy professional, I carved out solitary time by walking rather than driving the mile to and from work each day. The morning walk, in particular, was a time for heightened sensory awareness – the colors of sunrise, the sounds of birdsong, the sight of new buds on trees in spring or of flowers blooming in gardens along my route. Now that I’m retired, creating that space for solitude is easier and more central to my daily routines.
Our electronic devices, with their constant notification chimes and push alerts and the expectation of 24/7 availability, make it more difficult to create space for solitude. For many years, I resisted the siren call of cell phones because I didn’t want to give up control of when I am available for social connection. In retirement, I have learned that phones can be silenced and computers can be turned off. Although I now have a cell phone, it is an emergency precaution that I seldom use. My landline phone has a feature called “quiet mode” that allows me to make it completely silent (although it will still pick up and allow callers to leave a message) when I don’t want to be disturbed. I am a morning person, and because mornings are a particularly good time for me to make space for solitude, I have arranged my daily routines so that mornings are largely device-free. My telephone voice mail lets morning callers know that they can leave a message and that I will call them back after noon, and I generally don’t boot up my computer and check for email messages until late morning.
Solitude is an important and positive feature of my life, and it provides a necessary precondition for me to be creative, to experience joy, and to connect socially with others.
There’s a New Age saying that you should be a “human being” instead of a “human doing”.
LOL, I never heard that before. Too cute (and maybe also too glib). I think I’d prefer a combination of “human being” and “human doing.”
Love this. Have you read this book – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8520610-quiet
Carol, Yes, I read Susan Cain’s book in the first year I was retired and enjoyed it very much. It led me to do more reading about personality and how we come to be who we are. I found Brian Little’s book, Me, Myself and Us, particularly illuminating.
So well said. I feel like you were describing how I feel and what I allow myself to do. Thank you for sharing!
You are very welcome, Anne.
I do look forward to your Posts. I feel very connected as you often reflect my own values and peace in living alone. Solitude is high on my list of values.
Thank you, Jean, for your Reflections.
Jane Vachon, Sent from my iPhone
Thank you for your kind words, Jane.
Loved reading the way you savor sounds, smells and notice detailed changes in your garden.
Judy, I’m looking forward to the garden season and the experience of strolling around each morning and losing myself in the details.
I want to be like you when I grow up. I love how content you always seem to be with your life.
Jean, I am grateful for whatever combination of nature, nurture and life experience graced me with the capacity for joy and contentment.
A portion of solitude for mental health? Yes, please.
You have gone a little quiet on us. Hope that means you are both happy and busy with life.
I think being an introvert colors this for me. I crave solitude which is not easy when living with someone. So when he shops it is my time. And my walks help too.