Can Anyone Come to Love Being Alone?

I love being alone. But what if you don’t?

The title of an intriguing book, How to Be Alone gives away its goal. The author, Sara Maitland, is out to explain to you, in a smart, insightful, culturally and historically grounded way, how you can come to appreciate solitude, even if you are starting from a place of skepticism and fear.

Maitland is a true believer. Substantial stretches of the book are devoted to the rewards of solitude. She lives in part of Scotland where there is no cell phone service and neighbors are few and far between. If that’s all I knew about her, I would have guessed that she is someone who craved time to herself her entire life. But she isn’t. She’s a solitude convert, having come to the experience after growing up in a big family and then marrying and having kids of her own. She stepped into her post-divorce life with trepidation, but now relishes her time alone.

So I wonder: Can anyone come to love solitude? Should they try to, even if their initial reaction to the mere thought of spending time alone is repulsion?

The very first page of How to Be Alone includes this:

“Go into the bathroom; lock the door, take a shower. You are alone.

“Get in your car and drive somewhere (or walk, jog, bicycle, even swim). You are alone.

“Wake yourself up in the middle of the night…; don’t turn your lights on; just sit in the dark. You are alone.”

She doesn’t say so quite yet, but eventually she will try to persuade us that being alone is not just easy, but wonderful. Is there anyone who has not enjoyed taking a long shower or a drive or a walk or a bike ride or a swim?

Solitude, Maitland will maintain, is good for the soul. It is great for creativity; no, it is more than that — it may well be essential. Solitude is freeing. It connects us with nature. It connects us more deeply with ourselves. And, perhaps ironically, having a full measure of solitude is also good for our relationships with other people. (Other writings on what’s great about solitude are here.)

Maitland’s suggestions for coming to appreciate solitude more (or, as she puts it, “rebalancing attitudes toward solitude”) come in the form of chapter titles:

  • “Face the Fear” (she thinks that those who are fearful of solitude should expose themselves to it, ‘initially in very low ‘doses’”)
  • “Do Something Enjoyable Alone”
  • “Explore Reverie”
  • “Look at Nature”
  • “Learn Something by Heart” (this was one of the few chapter titles that was not intuitively obvious to me, but I got it after reading the chapter)
  • “Going Solo” (here she means solo travel and adventures)
  • “Train the Children” (for example, we should stop trying to over-schedule our kids and overprotect them from time alone, and we should never use isolation — time outs, going to your room — as punishment)
  • “Respect Difference” (This chapter has a great opening line: “Bernard Shaw once said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you; they may have very different tastes.’”)

I don’t know the answer to the question of whether anyone can come to love being alone. I kind of doubt it. But maybe everyone can come to appreciate small samplings of aloneness. Maybe, as the opening page of Maitland’s book suggests, they already do but just don’t realize it.

The other question I posed is whether people should try to love solitude even if they currently don’t like it at all. I’m not so sure about that either, even though I totally cherish my time alone and arrange to have plenty of it. I do think that young adults, especially, should try spending non-trivial amounts of time alone, for the experience of self-exploration and self-discovery.

As for the rest of the adult population — well, I think it is one of the wonders of contemporary life that we have more opportunities than we ever had before to live the way that suits us, whether that is alone, with one other person, or a whole house full of people. If you don’t want to live alone and you don’t have to, don’t force yourself. And if you do want to live alone and you can, go for it and don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you have to apologize for that.

[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links. Finally, my “Single at Heart” blog that I have been writing for Psych Central since 2011 is ending in 2020; I am updating many of those posts and moving them to this blog on Medium.]

“America’s foremost thinker and writer on the single experience,” according to the Atlantic. Author of “Singled Out.” Harvard PhD

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