Our need for healthy relationship with others is ubiquitous, inescapable, commonsense to most, and of emphasis through the language of attachment science in the world of mental health and psychology. A trending discussion of our hardwired human need for closeness with others is well-placed, and it excites me to see us broadening ideas of self-care to include our relational lives and ways of being with others. And yet, conversations (even the well-placed ones) that catch momentum at the speed of social media tend to be quickly emptied of nuance. This seems especially true when it comes to our questions about mental and emotional well-being, the answers for which will always hold contradiction, greys, messy middles, and in-betweens. This is the mystery of what it means to be human. It seems both frustrating and wonderfully true that real and honest answers to our questions about being human and living well- in both the everyday and existential sense- are, it seems without exception, captured in paradox. And so, without a doubt in the importance of relationship, here’s one of those very paradoxes- our undeniable need for connection, and so true too, our undeniable need for solitude. For better or for worse, our quality of relationship with others relies on nurturing relationship with ourselves, and our quality of relationship with ourselves relies on nurturing relationship with others- symbiotically, each relies on the seemingly contradictory other. As poet, Rainer Maria Rilke puts it, “the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.”
Regardless of introversion and extraversion disposition, we all share a need for time in aloneness- a need for solitude that gives us a way back to ourselves. In (note: real) solitude, without the incessant allure of our phones and external distractions, conversation becomes an inward one, and with some willingness, we’re given the opportunity to meet ourselves through eyes and ears less clouded by the noise of the populace. The willingness, though, is a prerequisite. Aloneness- that is, to be in our own company- requires a sincerity to engage with the unknown of ourselves. David Whyte gives language to this in his essay, Alone from his must-read, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:
Solitude, and the entry into ourselves that it brings, invites unknowns in forms of aches and pains of the psyche, an actual sense of the body we’re inhabiting, memories we didn’t know we had, and a precarious identity. Willingness as a prerequisite for spending time in our own company might also reflect the faint sense of an impending discovery of discordance of inner and outer reality, and an irreversibility of making the unknown known. Indeed, solitude can be the death of what we thought we knew, and especially of who we thought ourselves to be. But with meeting ourselves on our own accord, we form a dynamic and growing inward relationship that lends itself to a greater pliability of ideas of who we are, and in tandem, a growing inward kindness toward our humanity.
As we grow a relationship with ourselves, solitude offers a counterintuitive antidote to loneliness. Many of us are not unfamiliar with feelings of loneliness in a room full of people juxtaposed with solitary experiences that have brought forth feelings of deep connectedness. How can we feel connected in a room full of others if we feel fundamentally disconnected from ourselves? How can we expect to be seen and known if we haven’t yet met ourselves? Solitude allows us to know ourselves, so we can give ourselves opportunities to be known. Such a venture necessitates, again, our willingness, as the rewards of being known in connection can only be cultivated through vulnerability- through the risks that we take in opening ourselves to others. With time, practice, and an ongoing engagement in the art of solitude, we meet ourselves more and more, and through the rewards of knowing ourselves and being known by others, we can start to delineate the people and places that hold up an honest and useful mirror for us, and those that do not. As inward kindness grows, we gift ourselves exposure to the former and sensibly protect ourselves from the latter.
The difficult and delightful work of looking inward that’s naturally facilitated through solitude brings empowerment. We learn to discover ourselves without a reliance on others to do so for us, as even if such power could be given away. Others can support how we see ourselves, help to water the seeds of us knowing ourselves by holding the mirror, but in occupying our own mind, body, heart, and soul, we are the sole gardener that can plant these seeds in the first place. Such planting and tending of seeds, is of course, continuous, seasonal, forever unfinished. We tend to our garden by working with the landscape of our inborn wild nature, planting seeds of our choosing, caring for perennials that take new shapes and forms across time, shedding annuals from past seasons, all the while doing the ongoing work of weeding misguided beliefs, unrelenting narratives, and old grievances. In solitude, we have the chance in the quiet of ourselves to see how our socialisation, families, and experiences have shaped us in childhood, through adolescence, and adulthood. We gift ourselves the chance to embrace the nostalgic and sentimental, the parts of our histories that have touched our hearts in ways that have given us the core and essential of ourselves, and the opportunity to dismantle, rework, or simply better live with the parts of ourselves that steer us away from the person we wish to be.
It’s a groundless and disorienting venture to set out into the far from perfect world we live in with its often misguided agendas and prejudices with the hopes that we’ll find the seeds of ourselves somewhere out there. Aloneness serves as respite from our imperfect world so we can return to it as our truest selves as a revolution against those parts of society that are- however subtly or overtly- unaccepting of the individual one has met and nurtured in their own company. Krista Tippett’s interview with author, Stephen Batchelor from her serene and seminal podcast production, On Being, guides us to the words of Montaigne,
Within the current reality in which social media is so embedded for most, our solitude is more and more encumbered by the noise of voices that are not our own. It’s a deliberate and revolutionary act to return to ourselves in the quiet of solitude where we access our own voice and knowing, so that we can return to the world with a greater endurance in our sense of self, and trust in it. And indeed, we need such endurance to do our part in shaping an evolving cultural conscience, to do the work, in James Baldwin’s words, “to make the world a more human dwelling place” so that ultimately, our aloneness is for the sake of our togetherness.