Solitude is Bliss - How Social Isolation Can Benefit You
We entering a period of intense restriction and social isolation. It's going to be tough on everyone, but you can harness that toughness to come out the other side a better person.
Peace of mind, in email form - psychology and philosophy to help manage your mental-wellbeing. We’re facing into some dark and restricted times, and much of what we normally use to ground ourselves has been taken away. Take a break from information overload with stuff you can’t Google.
“One can be instructed in society, one is inspired only in solitude.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Yesterday I talked about one often-overlooked tool we have for maintaining our mental health, perspective on the world, and sanity: small-talk.
Being alone is seen by many as a bad thing, and there has been much recent psychological research and focus on loneliness – a relative to depression, it’s the feeling of being socially isolated and disconnected.
Today I’d like to look at the other side of the coin that is being alone and removed from others: solitude. You can look at solitude as the state of being alone on our own terms. It is self-directed rather enforced. Being in solitude is where creativity is allowed to flourish, and the source of personal growth and development. It is the domain of work and flourishing for creatives and scientists, for geniuses and visionaries, or for anyone who wants to take responsibility for their own evolution, even just a little bit.
Having once been afraid of doing anything on my own, or having been reliant on others to have a good time or know what to think, I now relish it and make plenty of time for it. I enjoy the space. I get to write, to think, to do as I please. I can even do nothing if I choose. Every moment spent alone is a moment of complete independence. Some people are naturally disposed to being alone, some may have to practice it. Many people are not as inclined towards total freedom as they might believe – they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they got it.
What would you think if there was no-one else around you to think first?
Solitude takes effect when you’ve practiced being alone for a while. It no longer troubles you. You grow into the state, and realise the power you wield over your actions, and then your general mental state. Your opinions and beliefs are no longer beholden to consensus and the pressure of your peers. It doesn’t take being a monk for years to practice that self-belief. Just enjoying your own company is a start.
When we are alone, stripped of normal social interaction, we become more vulnerable, more alert, more afraid, and also more aware. It’s why travel has the effect of changing people, or making them want to change. Even when surrounded by people, being taken out of your normal routine and day-to-day environment has the effect of making you starkly aware of your existence, and you see how much your environment has shaped and continues to shape you. It can be unsettling. Removing yourself from those people and routines is like taking away apart of you. The upside is that it leaves more of you as an individual.
There is nothing comparable to being alone for extended periods of time. No exercise, no practice, no drug that has the same effect on you. And it is a monstrous effect. It’ll hit you when you least expect. It happens whether you spend that time wisely or not, with intention or not (though I’d recommend always reflecting on why you’re doing something and what longer-term purpose it might serve, even if it’s just pure enjoyment).
Creativity is a transcendent act: by exercising it, you grow. And the precursor to creativity is solitude.
Personal or creative growth aren’t linear things. They require consistent work, and you don’t always have a choice of when that work happens. Like the current lockdown, for example. It’s going to take consistent work just to stay mentally afloat. So much restriction, so much fear, so much uncertainty. But every moment you deal with that uncertainty is consistent work. The resulting growth often happens when we take a step back from the work and focus on what we’re doing in the present moment. The release.
Experiences get integrated when you least expect it.
Whether you think you’re creative or not, embrace the isolation. Because the lockdown is going to be hard work, and there’ll be a release after. And the growth can be positive or negative. It’s not about external circumstances – you could be faced with the most challenging situations of your life, and come out of it a better person for having got through them. Someone could learn every language on earth, and come out of the experience a bigger prick than he went in.
It’s not a contest between who’s got it harder, or what you’ve achieved in these six weeks.
Whatever’s in front of you, when stripped of the normal ties of routine and society, how did you face it?
You’re going to grow in some direction, so which way would you like it to be?
Keep a diary, if for no other reason than to show your kids. Why on earth wouldn’t you want to document this time? Take photos. Detox from social media. Plant a tree. I’ve recently discovered the joys of keeping well-stocked bird-feeders. Stay active – exercising, working out and staying active can all be creative acts (partly because of the effects of physical growth or decay; partly in how you express your body through activity). Every act of creation becomes a part of you.
But mainly just stay aware of how you’re feeling. That’s the key to surviving this period psychologically.
And after that?
“Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
― Honoré de Balzac
You need to come back down to earth at some point. Take days off from solitude. Keep in touch with your friends and family. Stay afloat in work. Make small talk with people in the street or the shop. You need socialisation to integrate what you’ve learned, or else it might all be wasted. If you remain away from society and normal routine for good, you remain the eternal wanderer, or the acid casualty who never came back down to earth.
Aristotle claimed that to live apart from society, one must either be a beast or a god. Most of us are neither. We need routines and some sort of tether to normality, and no matter how emotionally or otherwise self-sufficient we think we are, no matter how free-spirited or independent we see ourselves, we need others to function. Extended isolation can do good – or bad – things for your development, but we all need to go back to normality at some point.
Learning requires sustained periods of deep work followed by periods of deep rest. And learning who you are follows the same basic principles. Remove yourself from society, pay attention to how you react, then – and this is a crucial part – reintegrate yourself and apply what you’ve learned.
We’re entering a period of deep learning, as individuals and as society. Regardless of what the government has instructed us to do, and no matter how indecisive and incapable of even basic internal communication on matters of all-time national importance they appear to be, they can’t live out the next few weeks for you. We’re all in charge of our own inner states. Whether anything changes for better or worse in the outside world – whether you accomplish some great work of art of professional advancement – is trivial by comparison.
It’s difficult, but we don’t have a choice right now. The bad times are the best of times, as the fella said, and I think this is what he meant. If you can hold out for the next six weeks, you won’t know yourself. We’re all going to be different people in six weeks’ time, whether we see it that way or not. So who would you like that person to be?
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