“The best is the deep quiet in which I live and grow against the world, and harvest what they cannot take from me by fire and sword.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
For the past century Western societies have placed great emphasis on the importance of personal relationships. A general and implicit consensus reigns over our culture – it is believed that meaning and fulfillment in life is to be found primarily through relationships with others.
This idea formed the core of the 20th century psychoanalytical school called Object Relations Theory. Human beings, according to this school of thought, are first and foremost social beings whose primary need is to develop secure and rewarding relationships with others.
In the words of David Bowlby, the most famous member of this 20th century psychoanalytical movement:
“Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or toddler or school child but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one.” (Attachment and Loss, David Bowlby)
This overemphasis on the importance of personal relationships has diverted our eyes from the importance of solitude. Love and friendship, while important components of a life well lived, are not the only source of meaning and fulfillment in life.
Within us exist two opposing drives: the drive for love, friendship, and a sense of community with others; and the drive towards individuation, independence, and autonomy. Our society overemphasizes the importance of satiating the former drive, and all but ignores the importance of satisfying the latter.
In this article, deriving inspiration from the ideas of Anthony Storr’s excellent book, Solitude: A Return to the Self, we’ll investigate how happiness, meaning and fulfillment in life can be found by gaining an appreciation of the importance of solitude, and leaning how to master the art of being alone.
The Capacity to Be Alone and Psychological Health
Most therapists and psychologists of the last century have assumed that psychological health and emotional maturity can be gauged solely by the ability to develop secure relationships. In the 1950s, the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott became one of the few to challenge this view.
In his paper titled “The Capacity to Be Alone”, Winnicott argued that the capacity of an individual to embrace and thrive in solitude must be considered a determinant of psychological health.
“It is probably true to say that in psychoanalytical literature more has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone than on the ability to be alone; also a considerable amount of work has been done on the withdrawn state, a defensive organization implying an expectation of persecution. It would seem to me that a discussion of the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone is overdue.”
The Positive Aspects of the Capacity to Be Alone
Solitude and Self-Transformation
Many individuals who have learned the art of being alone have understood that solitude can used as a fertile setting to stimulate self-transformation.
A lot of individuals today are over-compliant, meaning they choose a way of life that is expected of them instead of one that resonates with their inner core. They develop a personality designed primarily to please others, and in the process remain oblivious to their deepest needs.
Blind to their true feelings and instincts, such individuals may reach a point in life where they feel their life is meaningless. Instead of approaching life as an experimental canvas upon which to discover their true self, they adapt themselves to external expectations and consensus opinion.
One way to escape the clutches of an over-compliant personality is to seek out solitude for the purpose of stimulating a transformation of the self. Periods of solitude can be used to reconnect with your true needs and feelings, and tune back to your inner compass – the sole reliable guide directing you to your fulfillment.
It is no surprise that the great religious leaders of the past have retreated from the world for a significant period of time in search of a deep, abiding, and transformative wisdom; only returning to society in order to share their findings with the rest of the world.
Anthony Storr wrote about the importance of solitude in the quest for self-realization:
“It appears, therefore, that some development of the capacity to be alone is necessary if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his highest potential. Human beings easily become alienated from their own deepest needs and feelings. Learning, thinking, innovation, and maintaining contact with one’s own inner world are all facilitated by solitude.” (Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Storr)
Along with Anthony Storr, the philosopher Michel Montaigne as well as the psychologist Carl Jung understood the vital importance of solitude.
For Montaigne, solitude was necessary in order to retain freedom from the constraints imposed by others, while for Jung, the capacity to be alone was vital for “inner-work” – that is, exploring the inner depths of the psyche, the “mini-cosmos” within.
“We must preserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein to establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.” (Montaigne)
“The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life – in them everything essential was decided.” (Carl Jung)
Creative Work and Solitude
One way to utilize solitude to stimulate self-transformation is to engage in some form of creative work.
As highly social animals our self-identity is largely developed through our interactions with others. But creative work grants us a unique opportunity to change our self-identity by self-reference.
Via the exploration of our imagination, and the attempt to materialize novel creative works in the world, we can redefine our worldview and transform our sense of self.
In the words of Storr:
“The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates. He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity. His most significant moments are those in which he attained some new insight, or makes some new discovery; and these moments are chiefly, if not invariably, those in which he is alone.” (Solitude: A Return to the Self, Anthony Storr)
Solitude in the Modern Day
Solitude is a key ingredient in the quest to satisfy the drive for individuation, independence, and self-realization. Yet in the modern day, true solitude is becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Individuals today, even when physically alone, do not experience solitude. Instead, many people spend their time alone watching TV, or obsessively zoned in on their computer or smartphone.
As more and more individuals cut themselves off from experiencing true solitude, they will likewise find it increasingly difficult to individuate – to become a separate and unique self-realized individual.
Immersed in the opinions, ideas, and expectations of others – even when physically alone – they will automatically conform to the socially accepted worldview, and take a path in life that is expected of them, instead of one that fulfills their deepest needs and does justice to their uniqueness as individuals.
Solitude for Self-Actualizers
If you are one of the minority devoted to the individuation process – to becoming the person you are capable of becoming by actualizing your higher potentials – solitude is essential. You must carve out time and space to be alone with your thoughts: either in meditation, exploring your “inner images”, or engaged in creative work.
Periods of solitude will connect you to the deeper aspects of your self, allow you to discover who you really are and what you really want out of life, and give you the ability to engage in self-transformation via self-reference.
Solitude will also grant you respite from the world. The noise, busyness, and troubles which plague the world can at times be overwhelming and wreck destruction on the health of our psyche. Solitude, especially in the times we live in, can act as a much needed antidote to the craziness of the world.
“When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.” (Wordsworth)