“I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” –- Henry David Thoreau
One of the more positive changes in my life since starting St Andrews has been that now, I spend around eight to ten days a year of my life driving up and down the M6. Bar the occasional coffee order at Richard Charnock Services, this time is, if I can at all help it, spent alone. Far from feeling lonely or bored during these seven-hour stints, I find the experience deeply meditative and fulfilling. In fact, never am I so happy, and never do I feel less lonely, as when I am on the long drive north.
Solitude and loneliness, often confused, could not be more different. Misconception results because the company of others is often deemed more important and entertaining than the company of oneself. This is untrue. Each has a role and place.
Because, yes, there is a certain social buzz you gain from other people. But, I would argue, you also get a different and unique form of social buzz by being with yourself.
In fact, as almost every religion ever argues, being alone is a portal to transcendence. In the Dhammapada, for example, the Buddha spends six years meditating in the company of others, eating only a grain of rice a day. It is only when he gives up this strict regimen, and meditates alone on a full stomach, that the Buddha rapidly achieves enlightenment.
And it’s not just Buddhism. Jesus spent 40 days alone in the desert before he conducted any miracle, and Muhammed spent several weeks a year alone in a cave. It was only here, and it was only alone that the archangel Gabriel came down and Muhammed received Allah’s words.
Traditions that have lasted and thrived over thousands of years associate solitude with the presence of the divine, not the absence of others. And whether that’s true or not, it’s telling. Because being alone forces both introspection and a greater appreciation of the non-human world that surrounds you. And the experiences people gain from it are often ones that people have been willing to devote their lives to.
In other words, it is no insignificant thing. Solitude gets us closer to the mysteries of the self and the universe. Reaching deeper and beyond, solitude done right is bracing, not lonely.
In fact, perhaps the inverse is true. In my view, the most lonely anyone feels is in the company of others. Take an example. Imagine you’re at a party. You know just two people, one of which is chatting up a girl, and the other, the host who invited you last-minute, is busy dealing with his obligations of ensuring the party goes smoothly. The result: you’re speaking to a man about his passion for trainspotting. As he lists the train stations that the government have announced are to be re-opened in the next calendar year, you feel a broad sense of pessimism about humanity. Never, you think, have I felt less passionate or engaged by anything anyone has ever spoken to me about. You leave the party dejected and depressed, as lonely as you’ve ever felt.
The point is, you’re most lonely not when you’re most alone, but when you feel most disconnected from the world. That, most often, is in the company, not of oneself, but of others, whose actions show the world to be strange and uncomfortable.
And of course, that’s not to say that being with others is the only way you feel lonely — you can feel lonely when you’re on your own. Prolonged periods of isolation are never good — there is a reason why ‘solitary confinement’, or the ‘hole’ is prison’s most severe form of punishment.
But what we need in life is balance. And, as solitude offers us things we can’t get without it, a good life requires an ample dose of it. Solitude opens up new worlds, away from the idle chatter and meaningless gossip of ordinary social interaction. At best, it can offer us a holiday from reality and responsibility, offering us the opportunity to go deeper and further, to reflect on the position of ourselves, the world and existence itself.