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  • Brendan Stec

How to enjoy solitude



"I'm not alone 'cause the TV's on, yeah."

—"Bleed American", Jimmy Eat World

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In my last note, I wrote about why it’s important for people to invest in their relationships with others. Research shows that people with strong relationships are not only happier, but physically healthier as well. The implication for you is that it’s crucial to spend a lot of time with the people you love, maybe as much time as you can.

The practical reality, though, is that, even if you do put your relationships first, you can still end up spending time by yourself from time to time. Sometimes there is work to be done. Friends have work to do. Schedules are busy. Quarantines happen.

So there you are: the four walls of your room and you. Maybe the TV is on to keep you company. If you feel a bit lonely, maybe you get around to asking yourself:


How do I enjoy being by myself?

If you were one of those kids and already enjoy being by yourself, congratulations, you’re an introvert.

But for the rest of us, learning to enjoy being alone is a skill that must be developed. And I think it’s a skill you should, because learning to be alone breeds self-sufficiency in a world that hardly mends to anyone’s wishes. You can’t always spend time with the people you love, but you can always have your own mind if you’re willing to survive with just that. Plenty have done so before.

So how do you do it? I think there are two helpful strategies that you can start with:

  1. Find your place

  2. Connect with those before you

Let’s check them out...



1) Find Your Place


Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper (1953)



It’s a lot easier to be alone when you think about the benefits that are associated with it: no loud noises, no responsibilities besides your own, no customers, no strangers, and, thankfully, no outside world, with its manic news cycle and traffic jams.

It’s a lot easier to achieve these benefits if you have a dedicated place that’s quiet, comfortable, and explicitly suited for the purpose of alone time.

In his essay “On Solitude”, the 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne emphasized that everyone should have a space like this in their home, where they can be quietly insulated from the outside world.

"[W]e must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat. And in this we must for the most part entertain ourselves with ourselves, and so privately that no exotic knowledge or communication be admitted there; there to laugh and to talk, as if without wife, children, goods, train, or attendance, to the end that when it shall so fall out that we must lose any or all of these, it may be no new thing to be without them." (1)

When I was living in London in the summer of 2017, I used to walk over to the Spa Fields near my flat in Clerkenwell, sit by myself, eat my Panzo’s pizza, and read during the summer twilight. I was thousands of miles away from almost anyone I knew, but I never quite felt lonely. It became a routine for me, almost a second home. But with more pigeons.

When his marriage dissolved and he was living in a $15 a month shack in the backwoods of North Carolina, the writer Steven Pressfield would spend his lonely nights cooking by an open campfire. Sometimes the local feral cat would come by and keep him company. That was his routine, the place where he learned he could be alone.

The psychiatrist Carl Jung would often spend several months writing and thinking alone in his stone “tower” by Lake Zurich. And how can we forget about Bill Gates and his well-known “think weeks”, in which he would retreat to a remote cabin to read every day by himself for a week.

You don’t need your own tower, cabin or campfire. I’m sure there is a couch, desk, or park bench that can work just fine. As long as the place is relatively comfortable and quiet, it can serve as a sanctuary away from the outside world.

Once you begin to associate this place with serenity, you can become more comfortable being by yourself. Away from the anxieties of your job, you may even look forward to being there.


2) Connect With Those Before You

My curly-haired friend, Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD)



The Roman emperor and Stoic Marcus Aurelius was no stranger to feeling isolated.

It’s lonely at the top, especially when you’re constantly fighting off resistance groups in the borderlands and power-hungry rivals at home.

But he learned to accept this lonely reality by reading the writings and journals of leaders before him, who had been in his same shoes generations before. He felt he could connect to their struggles. If others could push through the bouts of isolation—he reasoned—why couldn’t he push through too?

In situations where you must fight through life on the lone frontier, you don’t have to go at it completely alone. If you still have your mind, you can still relate to others through the countless heroes and leaders found in books

There is a saying by the American novelist James Baldwin,

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read."

Think about the resilience and fortitude displayed by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning as he survived three years in several Nazi concentration camps—all while completely isolated from his family.

It’s possible to learn to truly connect and relate to any of the individuals you read about. They may not be physically with you, but their wisdom and experience can be just as valuable in helping you feel supported or understood. A human connection is still possible.

The writer Ryan Holiday has read Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius so many times, that he has said that it almost feels as if he knows Seneca personally, just like another friend or family member.

Who can you learn from in history?

A great place to start can be to check out Ryan Holiday’s list of best biographies.


The Superpower

There is almost a superpower in learning how to be alone. If you can be comfortable being alone today, you can be more comfortable if something happens to one of your friends or family members tomorrow.

There is a story told by Seneca in which a man named Stilpo escapes from a great fire, which engulfed his wife, children, and possessions. A local man named Demetrius sees Stilpo with a relatively placid expression on his face and asks whether he had lost anything in the fire. Stilpo replied no, he had fortunately not lost anything that was his.

You might not be able to achieve this level of acceptance in the fragility of relationships. After all, it is human nature to desire a connection to others (unless you studied computer engineering). And as I’ve written before, people are healthier and happier when they do have strong relationships around them.

But when you find yourself alone for some time, there are certain strategies to get through it—and even enjoy it.


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References

(1) The Complete Essays, Michel de Montaigne


 

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