In our daily lives, we are bombarded by external stimuli, much of it coming from our ever-present phones and computers. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, while we sheltered in place and worked from home, technology pervaded our lives. We logged into work on our computers and watched television, anxiously tracking news about the advance of the virus and its effect on our world. And we spent more time than ever with the people who share our living spaces.
Ironically, in spite of social distancing in the outside world, for the past year and a half, many of us have spent very little time alone. An unexpected upside of the pandemic may be that we will learn the value of solitude.
The Meaning of Solitude
By solitude, I mean the state of being alone and enjoying it. It is a physical and mental space in which, as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, one can “lock the door and find one’s self again.” Being alone on our phones is not solitude, because we typically use texting and social media to distract us from ourselves
Psychology professor Thuy-vy-Nguyen, who studies solitude in the modern world, describes it as opportunity to pursue our own interests, with “no pressure to do anything, no pressure to talk to anyone, no obligation to make plans with people” and no worries about what others might think (“Why You Should Find Time to Be Alone with Yourself,” NY Times, 2019).
Authors and poets have extolled the virtues of solitude for centuries. In the 1800s, the romantic poets believed it was necessary for self-knowledge and creativity. Wordsworth “wandered lonely as a cloud,” and Byron reportedly said, “I only go out to get me a fresh appetite for being alone.”
A Woman’s Retreat
In the 20th century, feminists argued that women, especially, need time alone, away from the distractions and obligations of work, home and family. In Gift from the Sea, first published in 1955, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author, aviator and mother of five, made an eloquent case that “women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves.”
Lindbergh’s little book, which was based on a journal she kept during a vacation alone on an island off the coast of Florida, resonates with women across generations and around the world. Still in print, it has sold over 3 million copies and has been translated into 45 different languages.
Another feminist writer, Carolyn Heilbrun, described the need for solitude within a long marriage. In The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, she tells how, later in life, she bought a small house in the country so she could read, meditate and think apart from her husband. They already owned an apartment in New York City and a rambling house in upstate New York, but she longed for a place all her own, where she could retreat in silence.
Lessons from the Pandemic
Recently, many articles have appeared in the popular press about the advantages of spending time alone. Psychologists say it can improve confidence, productivity and creativity, help us regulate our emotions, and enhance our social relationships.
According to psychotherapist Amy Morin, who teaches clients how to build “mental strength,” when we spend time alone, we are modeling that behavior for our kids. Research shows that children who learn “solitary skills” are better behaved than other children (“7 Science-Backed Reasons You Should Spend More Time Alone,” Forbes, 2019).
The key to realizing the benefits of solitude is choosing to spend time alone and using that time as a form of self-care and an avenue toward self-understanding.
We must also appreciate our own company. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of learning to be alone, but it is an important developmental task and a test of character. As Jean Paul-Sartre famously noted, “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.”
My Solitary Weekend
I have lived alone during much of my adult life. I was almost 30 when I married my first husband. After eight years, we divorced, and I lived alone (with one or two cats) for another 20 years until I remarried at the age of 58.
Learning to share my mental and physical space again was a big adjustment. My husband is a retiree who spends most of his day at home, scanning the internet with the television on for background noise. The pandemic made things even more challenging for me. Since many of my outside activities were curtailed, we spent almost all of our time together.
I was beginning to think I’d never again experience the pleasures of solitude.
And then my husband, who is a genuinely nice guy, gave me the gift of time. He scheduled a three-day trip to attend an antique show, and he suggested that I stay home and enjoy the “break” from him.
When a friend asked what I was going to do while he was gone, I replied enthusiastically, “Nothing!” Solitude is not so much about what you do but who you are when you’re alone. You should feel relaxed and “tuned in” to your thoughts and feelings. I agree with Oprah Winfrey: “Alone time is when I distance myself from the voices of the world so I can hear my own voice.”
I did end up doing things, of course, but only what I truly wanted to do, in my own time and at my own pace. I devoted a few extra hours to volunteering, I made a Thai dish with tofu that my husband would not have liked, I got my hair done, I watched a couple of slow-moving, thoughtful movies with subtitles, and I began listening to a course with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle called “Practicing Presence.”
It was wonderful. Leaving me alone was the most loving thing my husband has ever done for me.
The Cycle of Life
Lindbergh concludes Gift from the Sea with a reflection on time and the life cycle: “Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from my beach-living: Simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid.” And so is each cycle of a life.
For Lindbergh, who was 49 when the book was published, her task in midlife was to maintain a sense of self in the midst of marriage, work and family life. I am nearly 20 years older, and my tasks are different. Developmental psychologist Robert J. Havighurst tells us that later life has its own unique opportunities and challenges.
Above all, we must come to terms with the effects of time, adapting to changes in our health and our bodies, our life circumstances, our living arrangements, and our social roles. We must adjust to the deaths of friends and loved ones and learn to appreciate and identify with people our own age.
This is what it means to “come into one’s own” or to “come of age” in later life, and it is a tall order. We need empathetic friends and family members to help us navigate such profound changes. We also need time alone to process our thoughts and feelings.
Growing old with dignity and self-respect is a monumental task for all of us. It may be even more challenging for women, who tend to outlive men in every society and often live alone in their final years.
Blessedly, we won’t feel lonely if we have learned to enjoy the company of the one person most likely to remain – ourself.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.
On behalf of Smart Strategies for Successful Living, our sincerest appreciation goes to Ruth Ray Karpen for her contribution to the heart and soul of living and aging.