Singing the praises of your own company…
by Ana Avia-O’Connor
Today, everyone exists in a digital spider web which links many of us closer than ever before, with nearly 1.44 billion daily users of Facebook at the start of 2015. Yet in the rush of the world, we risk losing the capacity to be alone within ourselves. We’re like flies in the spider web, suffocating in the threads that bind us to others. “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to live to yourself,” Renaissance philosopher Michel Montaigne once stated – but how many of us realise how to do so ?
To many, the idea of enjoying one’s solitude can seem outlandish, or even dangerous. We “enjoy long walks on the beach” but only if accompanied by that slightly dodgy barista we found on Tinder. Admitting that you relish long walks on the beach without a companion is tantamount to announcing your upcoming life as a hermit. This is particularly true if – for once – you want to stand alone and dwell in the atmosphere at a concert without the worry of trashed friends. Or if what you really fancy on a Friday night is Mi Goreng for one, and a Keeping Up With The Kardashians marathon. There should not be any shame in this, even if you think that Keeping Up With The Kardashians is a terrible show.
I try not to take it as a personal affront when asked how I can bear to spend so much time alone. While my (admittedly less than) winning personality may not be enough for some, it suits me just fine. I am the only constant in my life, and that’s what ultimately matters. It’s best to get used to your personality while you can ease into it, both the smooth and the rough. You don’t want to end up in an empty house during the few hours your child is asleep, realising you are overly socially dependent with less capacity for self-entertainment than even Kris Jenner. Don’t be Kris Jenner.
We need to learn how to be truly alone. To collapse onto the couch and sink beneath the surface of an engrossing book. To walk home at night after it has rained, marvelling at the way the light catches in the rough pavement. To cry fierce tears to your pillow the night your grandmother passed away, before your eyes. How else can you fall so deeply in love with your own self and your own company, such that every relationship you experience is informed by your sense of a whole self? How else can you come to terms with both your faults and your joys, and attempt to mitigate or expand them?
I think part of the problem is that we don’t realise that alone isn’t the same thing as lonely. Being alone is a physical state, in that no one else is present. Loneliness is a spiritual isolation, a disconnect between yourself and/others. They can be closely interlinked, but one certainly doesn’t mean the other. Sometimes your bed is calling you when you’re out with friends, or you just need space to hear yourself think. It’s much the same idea as the air safety procedure outlined at the start of every flight : “If there is an accident, put your air mask over your face before attempting to help others with theirs.” This may seem selfish, yet putting your happiness before social obligation and niceties is better for you and your friends, overall. You get the benefits of a few quiet moments or hours without the responsibility to act as if you want to be there, and your friends don’t have to deal with Donny Downer.
Of course, the devil is in the detail. You shouldn’t just go around cancelling social engagements because you are merely lazy, as I’ve been known to do… However, invoking every Oprah magazine cliché, it is supremely important to delve within yourself to make sure you are living in a way that makes you fulfilled.
In a world so concerned with the self and the individual…we broadcast our presence to friends and strangers the world over by Facebook statuses, Twitter hashtags and Tinder swipes. Over and over again, we state : I am here and I am alive. Look where I belong. Listen to me, validate me. Please. This desire to be part of a collective is normal and healthy. We all want to belong, to feel the tug of companionship towards others. Yet this seemingly eternal search for validation in others rather than ourselves is concerning. Self-worth measured in likes, retweets and swipes right is no self-worth at all if it means you are wholly reliant on the whims of others to love yourself.
A 2013 study by Ethan Kross and his colleagues at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research concluded that frequent Facebook use undermines people’s quality of life, in a way that communicating over the phone or face to face did not. Respondents in another study conducted by Dr. Kathy Charles at Edinburgh Napier University reported anxiety and pressure about updating their Facebook. True, such social media tools have seemed to bring disparate people together, overcoming geographic boundaries and time limits. If I know one thing. though, it is that we should not be reduced by the whimsies of social media.
It seems ironic that the tools that foster such distinctions between people also drive the fierce search to belong. We marginalise ourselves further and further into boxes with increasingly specific labels, isolating ourselves while purporting to belong to an increasing number of groups. “Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat,” as Jonathan Safran Foer once said. We have become so rarefied in our search for ourselves within the collective that the wheel turns, but very few go with it. It’s almost as if mere individuality isn’t enough, anymore. We differentiate ourselves to the point of no return, to prove that we adhere to some arbitrary outside standard of individuality. This dichotomy is the true solitary confinement.
Storytellers like Safran Foer often utilise our fears and clichés about the individualist nature of our capitalist society when they discuss atomisation and loneliness. As 2014 Man Booker winning author Richard Flanagan eloquently put it : “The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.”
No doubt, individual autonomy and success is at the ideological core of modern capitalist democracies, but this is not the whole story. If anything, it merely emphasised the loneliness humans have been feeling since time immemorial. This has manifested itself in our stories, whether it is God forsaking Job during his trials of faith, Hamlet’s increasing isolation and disillusionment, or a lonely soldier in Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. It seems a cruel joke that we keep telling ourselves the tales of isolation through the inclusive medium of narrative. One way of looking at it is as a Mobius loop of sorts, consisting of two seemingly diametrically opposed ideas that meld into one whole. Or not.
In no way am I suggesting we should seek to become totally atomised, all hermits in a quest to be whole human beings. For one thing, humans are social creatures, capable of great kindness and of fostering messy, complex and fulfilling relationships. For another, we sort of need to be in physical and emotional proximity to continue the human race as a species. Certainly, I cannot conceive of myself without my family or my friends, which is testament to either my improved ability to form close relationships or my emotional neediness. I derive enormous pleasure from my interactions with others, but I also appreciate my times when I can be alone to sit in contemplation. Or maybe to twist my neck trying to be ‘Yonce (both are equally possible options).
One of my favourite things I did last year was going to a Jazz show alone, and soaking it all in. I didn’t have to think whether someone else would find it boring, or be too embarrassed to let them see my cry when the music struck a chord – so to speak – in me. Another instance that comes to mind is the weekend mornings when I was younger. Being an early riser, I had a delicious time all of my own, imagining I was like Roald Dahl’s Matilda settling down to read a comfortingly large pile of books, with a huge mug of Ovaltine in hand. Instead. I used to blast music at a high volume, drink all of the juice in the fridge, and read the paper.
To repeat : solitary time is a complement to time spent with others, and vice versa. Although I enjoyed my weekend mornings where I had the freedom to make my own entertainment, it made me appreciate the weekday mornings I would have with my mother before school, where we would sit in comfortable silence or talk about what we heard on Morning Report…..For an analogy, take the example of a book discussion scheme. This feeds off the self-contained action of reading a book, the collective experience of the readers having differing reactions, and then the coming together to discuss these reactions and the book itself. Ultimately, nothing can be apart from (or alone in regard to) without a conception of a social collective or group.
As a last salvo in the fight for solitude, I’d like to encourage everyone who has gotten this far into the article to first pat themselves on the back, then take some time to find seclusion themselves. One of the easiest ways is to snatch for yourself whatever moments you can from unexpected situations – whether it be by grooving out to “Irreplaceable” by Queen Bey while you’re stuck in traffic, or by reading a few pages of that novel you always carry around while you wait for your boyfriend to arrive.
It can be very scary to face who you are, to be the only one there to entertain yourself. This is especially true when you don’t like who you are, and when you don’t even know who you are. In which case, it is all the more important to spend some time in solitude, to try and unwind the knotty parts of your personality. As much as that may sound hippy-ish, self-knowledge is dope.. and to be solitary is not to be confined. Ibsen was truly right when he said that “To live is to war with trolls in heart and soul. To write is to sit in judgement on oneself.”
Being solitary interrogates those trolls, until they are worn down, or until they crystallise into signs that mark out the boundaries of what we can deal with. It may be a cliché to “discover yourself.” But we need to try ourselves on for size, lest we find ourselves living a life that only hums and sparkles when others let it be so. I raise my solitary gin and tonic to you, that you might discover the delicacy of your own company.