“Loneliness is one thing, solitude another.” – Frederich Nietzsche
Throughout my 20s’, I hated being alone. I was what you would call an extroverted extrovert—constantly feeling the need to be around others and relying on those social situations to recharge me. Only in retrospect, I can start to understand why I felt this way. My 20s were really hard and as most people this age can relate to; I was struggling to carve a path in my career, social life, and relationships. When I think back to the type of person I was even just 5 years ago, it’s not through the most favourable light. I struggled with controlling my temper and lacked pragmatism when it came to regulating my emotions. I felt alone a lot of the time because I wasn’t comfortable being alone. Instead of sitting with feelings of loneliness as they arose, I deflected through various forms of escapism: I entered into relationships that weren’t good for me and became toxic over time, I drank and partied too much, and tried to find shortcuts with my goals; seeking out various life hacks to get to my destination as quick as possible, without putting in the actual work. I felt disconnected from myself and went through long periods of stagnation and complacency.
Recounting these memories makes me realize how much I’ve changed. The older I get, the more I appreciate and crave my solitude and alone time. It’s those little moments I cherish where I get to stop, take time to think, contemplate, and just be with myself and my own thoughts.
The Roots of Loneliness
Loneliness is something we all grapple with whether we’re single or in a relationship, thriving, or in a lower point. We all experience—at one point or another—the empty feelings of being alone throughout our lives. German philosopher Eric Fromm in his book The Art of Loving explains that we’re born into a state of “separateness” and how this state is the source (or origin) of all our anxiety. He writes:
Man is gifted with reason; he is life being aware of itself; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of the future. The awareness of his aloneness and separateness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes him separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. [The deepest] need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.
The blunt truth is that we were born alone and will die alone. Sorry, no warm fuzzies here. While this thought on the surface may sound quite morbid, I have found a bit of solace in the idea and in a way, find it quite beautiful—especially during those times when I’m by myself and feeling particularly lonely. Everyone feels this; it’s part of a shared human experience.
When we accept that we are alone, we can bear the weight of being alone. I used to feel so much FOMO if I wasn’t making proactive plans all the time—I needed to fill my schedule to the brim with activity and social plans to feel some source of satisfaction. I was distracting myself from myself. I considered being home alone as boring. I struggled to entertain myself and blamed it on being a “high stimulus person” that needed constant distractions. The hard truth is that I just wasn’t comfortable with being alone and struggled to find happiness in my own solitude, and the quality of my thoughts.
Since I’m self-employed and work remotely, I spend most of my days by myself. While I do have some client calls smattered throughout my week, I don’t have the opportunity to socialize with colleagues in the flesh; I’ve acclimatized to being alone over the last 6 years or so. While I of course crave social interactions and need it throughout my day, I truly treasure the time I have alone. That doesn’t just mean sitting at home by myself, but engaging in activities independently: running, lifting, day hikes, long walks by the water, etc. Running is my own sanctuary where I get to contemplate life and comfortably be with my thoughts. It’s my favourite outlet for contemplative and creative thinking, problem solving, and is often the time where some of my best ideas and deepest thoughts surface.
On Outsourcing Our Own Thinking vs. Formulating Our Own Thoughts
“If I am like everybody else, if I have no feelings or thoughts which make me different, if I conform in custom, dress, ideas, to the pattern of the group, I am saved; saved from the frightening experience of aloneness.” –Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
One of the biggest benefits that has emerged for me during my alone time is developing my own faculty of reason and coming up with my own thoughts and opinions about the world. My friend said rather boldly that most people’s first thoughts and opinions are not our own and are subconsciously formulated from the masses. I think he’s right. Taking the time to educate ourselves and quite bluntly think for ourselves is arduous—many people don’t engage in the hard labor and instead, prefer to be subservient in our thinking; that is, get others to do our thinking for us.
When it comes to thinking, we naturally gravitate towards the ready-made, microwaveable dinner vs. preparing a beautifully home-cooked meal from scratch. But we all know the latter is going to taste much better if we can actually find the time to do it. Not only find the time, but make it a priority. I’m guilty just as much as everyone else on this; sometimes it just makes more sense to outsource our thinking to the experts. Who can really blame us though? Life is so frenetic; we constantly feel the push and pull and demands of our time and attention—whether that’s from work, our relationships, or leisure.
However, as German philosopher Immanuel Kant believes (as paraphrased by Stephen West), “we impose immaturity on ourselves by outsourcing our thinking to others.” Kant believes this drive begins when we’re children and dependant on our parents to do our thinking for us. As we get older and move into adulthood many of us (if not a majority if I so boldly state) remain in this state of dependence on others to do our thinking. Whether that be individuals in pop culture, academia, authors, YouTubers, influencers, our bosses, colleagues, family, organized religion, or even our social circles.
It’s easier to offload our understanding to someone else vs. formulating our own truths or our own opinions. We find comfort in this ability and while some use it more than others, we’re all guilty of this cognitive shortcut.
The point I’m trying to make is that if we spend time in study–relishing in solitude and acquiring knowledge–it gives life a richer dimension. Life doesn’t seem so one-dimensional, repetitive, and monotonous. Every day is an adventure. The more I learn, the more I realize how much there still is to learn; it rekindles my child-like sense of wonder and adventure about the world. Spending time in solitude improves the quality of my thinking. Reading diverse thoughts and philosophy sharpens my mind and makes me more accepting and more loving towards myself.
“My solitude doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of people; on the contrary, I hate who steals my solitude without, in exchange, offering me true company.” – Nietzsche
While I do love my solitude, spending time with my close friends and family is deeply nourishing and fulfilling. Since I do enjoy my alone time so much, I only sacrifice that time if it means I can nurture more multi-dimensional relationships. Steve Palvina describes 4D relationships as a more “holistic connection.” 4D refers to physical (body), mentally (mind), emotionally (heart), and purposefully (spirit). I look for friendships in 3D (heart, mind, spirit), which I find much more fulfilling than 1D or 2D connections.
Throughout our existence, we’re plagued with this state of aloneness or separateness that Fromm describes which in layman’s terms makes us all feel alone and in need of “unity”. To overcome this fearful, anxiety-ridden state, we seek connection: joining groups, communities, and entering into interpersonal relationships. All these are important for us to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilled life. Let me be clear: I’m not advocating to become a recluse or hermit. However, by embracing and reclaiming our solitude, we can improve the quality of our thinking and speaking anecdotally, I’ve been able to enrich and deepen my relationships so much more. My solitude has given me the space and time to be more creative, to formulate my own thoughts, to learn, to grow, and to filter out who I want to spend my time with. Solitude is a treasure and instead of something to run away from, exploring the depths of ourselves is something we should all try to strive for just a little bit more.