Sometimes we find it hard to be alone with ourselves. What could that be about? Figuring it out could lead to making more careful choices in our social lives, without the urgency of finding somebody (or an impressive Facebook friend list full of somebodies) to fill the silence, and take us away from the one person we really can’t avoid.
People confuse solitude with loneliness; check the Wikipedia definition, for example, which associates it with people suffering from bad relationships or mental disorders, as well as castaways. Simply, solitude is quiet time apart from other people, by choice, without being contagious or incarcerated. Loneliness is the sad, involuntary form of being alone, the one that is associated with depression, or feeling unworthy of the company of other people. But we can be lonely in a crowd, and we can be in deep peace when all by ourselves. People take long trips to Patagonia to experience this form of solitude. Yet other people so dread being alone with themselves that they instantly replace one partner with another, leave the tv on all night, or when forced to stop texting for an hour, they act as if it were a form of death.
What’s so scary about solitude? Alone, we carry our history with us, as well as a huge reserve of experiences we haven’t sorted and woven into our story yet. This is the part of ourselves that we don’t yet know, and we secretly suspect that other people won’t understand. What if we unplug from society to go inward in a moment of solitude, only to come out and discover that we no longer fit in the same hole in our existing social world? It might feel like being homeless. We want other people to accept us and allow us to feel at home in the world, but not tell us how “we” feel and think. Solitary reflection carries a risk. Of course, so does letting the clan write your story.
We live in a paradox, really: we both become ourselves in response to other people, and become ourselves only when we are free of social pressure. Other people unexpectedly stir our empathy, or help us discover our outrage. Other people encourage our eating salads and invite us into their kitchens. They challenge our convictions, forcing us to take a stand, or to conform. We are shaped by the kitchen we grew up in, and repeat the dogmas passed around the table or the altar. It’s so much easier to hang out with similar people. Sometimes they’re hard to find, though, as our world changes. So are soulmates, the people who are drawn to the unique journey each of us is on, and want to be our companions. Soulmates are willing to be with us not just at parties, but also in our solitude, and miraculously, they don’t ruin it. In solitude, we discover what we uniquely bring to the kitchen table. In the quiet, we may find some small shift of perspective that changes us, and may one day change the world. Soulmates, our true friends, will always make room for that.