So you want to be alone
Let me describe the scenario: You, on your own, lounging by a cold rocky shore, watching the long days turn into nights. Or perhaps at home, you devour what’s left in the fridge at midnight, tuck yourself into bed, and binge-watch films. You’re free from the vulnerabilities of others’ propensities, policies, perceptions, ignorance, and moods. And that ideal is exactly the reason why a growing number of young people are fascinated over the idea of going solo—to be someone who is self-reliant, finding solace in a loner’s self-governing independence rather than hopping on relationships’ inconsistencies.
But as romantic as it may sound in literature, it’s time to refresh this commonly aestheticized idea of a strong and self-reliant solitary.
Prominent essayist Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” With the apparent success on not having to depend on anyone for anything even in the wilderness, loners’ characteristics are undoubtedly appealing and somewhat reassuring that we could thrive as they do in isolation—that even marriage or relationships are seemingly overrated social constructs, meant to inhibit our personal freedoms.
Basically, most of us today bask in our individualistic and highly western culture, walking around with our heads tilted down to be consumed on mobile devices, because it stands as our refuge from dull small talks. In some ways, we’ve sometimes dreamt of living alone in the mountains to turn away from urban apprehension.
Proving just how much we admire seeking places to be by ourselves, an article by Mental Floss enumerated nine of the most remote places on Earth, including a village on the South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha, often referred today as “The Settlement.” It is considered the most remote community with 275 odd islanders comprising of just seven surnames. The odd residents of these isolated towns are literally in the middle of nowhere if you ever plan to visit and ask them about the place.
For the most part, solitude gets rid of others’ constraints and offers us total freedom, which leaves our life decisions and choices our own to make. Apart from that, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli proved that solitude fuels our stream of creativity when he found that adolescents who can’t abide on solitude often cease in fostering their talents. When given this much freedom, most artists and writers would agree on the importance of being alone to resist social distractions and spark more creativity.
Another proven benefit of basking in alone time is the development of one’s identity and self-concept, through contemplation and self-examination, as stated by Christopher Long and James Averill in Solitude: And Exploration of the Benefits of Being Alone. With that, novelist Wendell Berry testifies the importance of solitude by explaining, “One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.”
But while these people pass through the gates of solitude as a conduit for self-fulfillment, they remain socially supported—Thoreau visited his town regularly even in his years of retreat and the 300 odd citizens of Tristan da Cunha are together with their families. Novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote, “Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.” Despite what we like to imagine, real and perpetual isolation is not at all easy or romantic.
If you’re really thinking of going solo and leaving everything behind, there are people who seem to have done a great job in their solitary pursuit, but there are a lot more who are victims of this self-reliant hermit fantasy. Christopher McCandless, an inexperienced hiker, itinerant traveler, and inspiration of the 2007 biographical film Into the Wild, died of starvation from going into the wild all by himself with minimal supplies. His decomposing body was found by hunters in a converted bus, weighing only 30 kilograms.
Apart from the people wronged of its fancy appeal, there are as many cases of unwanted social isolation, especially common among those who are held in solitary confinements as political prisoners. One of them is photojournalist and reporter Shane Bauer who was detained and held incommunicado for 26 months in Iran. In his dreadful experience, he had the most desperate desire to communicate and reconnect with people, even his captors, going so far as to wake up every morning, hoping to be interrogated. He added, “I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody.”
Engaging in total solitude for its apparent privileges to wellbeing is one thing, but to keep oneself in its barren latch is another. At the end of the day, even the best wilderness dwellers are left with more questions than enlightenment of what purpose solitude really serves when one is starved from reality.
If you’ve ever played The Sims, you know how terrible a sim gets when its social meter gets past the critical level that it even leads to death. For the most part, rule number one of survival is to basically have someone with you to flourish with. The idea is backed by a growing body of psychological research and evidence by University of St. Andrews professor Kimberley Brownlee, indicating how active social interaction, connection, and belonging are life’s fundamentals to a decent human existence and wellbeing. Apparently, this fact also has something to do with the decreasing rates of marriage over the last few years, as people start to celebrate the joy of aloneness and the freedom that comes with it. But if we are to talk about data, researchers found that social disconnectedness is linked to higher mortality, regardless of whatever the cause of death might be. Attesting to this, a study in 2010 showed that long-term solitude is just as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
It is an arguable fact that isolation reduces immune function. As epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe of University College London explains, “When you’re socially isolated, you not only lack companionship in many cases, but you may also lack advice and support from people.” Perhaps it’s time to unpack your bags and return to the world of common bonds. At the very core, everybody needs someone, and the right to be included in a social connection shouldn’t be repressed just because you’re overcome with the fantasy of setting up a tent or a cabin in the wilderness to spend the rest of your life foraging.
We’ve heard people of individualistic cultures declare that the strongest man in the world is the one who can stand alone. But Thoreau himself knew that a solitary pursuit that doesn’t lead us back to society can become a spiritual dead end. Because what embodies the strongest person is found in the moments we expose our vulnerabilities to others—when we realize that strong individuals open their cracks to welcome the light of others.