“In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.” —Rollo May
For many people, the hardest thing to do is be alone.
It’s not our fault. It’s baked into our DNA—those who are less alone are likelier to pass on their genes, allowing those sociable traits to persist in the gene pool. And there are heaps of published studies on the social nature of our brains—that we feel pain when we lose someone we love or are excluded from groups (even fictional ones), that we have stronger immune systems when we feel connected with others, that falling in love activates areas in the brain also related to drug addiction, and so on.
So, in the way we huddled around the tribal fire centuries ago, today we reach for our phones. We open our laptops. We download the apps that promise to help us find connection or to stay connected with the world around us. We date people we don’t love (“Give them another chance!”), and sometimes we even marry them (“Don’t end up ALONE!”). Of course, some of us do build connections based on genuine mutual affinity, and those of us lucky enough to do so sense the truth and reality of those priceless friendships. (“Symbiotic relationships,” the evolutionary ecologist would comment dryly. And the realist would point out that most people are buried alone, so you’re probably going to “end up alone” no matter what. I digress.)
The point is that it’s biologically normal that many of us have a fear of being alone or a negative attitude about being alone. “I’m lonely” is a call for sympathy, not a call for high fives.
But creative work demands solitude
Recall what Virginia Woolf claimed a writer needs (a room of one’s own). Roald Dahl was to writing hut as Thoreau was to cabin. Inevitably, anyone creating something works alone.
It can be hard, even for introverts. Embracing solitude means to embrace oneself—which has little to do with introversion. If you do not approve of yourself, you cannot ever be at peace. A crowd becomes a welcome distraction to our own voice. But when the crowd goes home, or when you do, you’re still left with your own thoughts.
“Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared to private opinion,” wrote Thoreau. And his friend, Emerson, wrote, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
Together, Thoreau and Emerson would likely agree that if we fear solitude, it is really a sign that we fear ourselves—that we are discontent with what our inner voices say to us, because we haven’t mastered the ability to direct our thoughts. We say our inner critic is harsh, but the reality is that we haven’t trained ourselves to be more supportive. This is also what self-discipline means.
What solitude creates
Solitude creates the space for the inner voice to emerge, for the mental eye to explore possibility uninterrupted by external commentary. Without someone else’s thoughts influencing the formation of your own, you discover what results from the combination of experiences that you alone have had. The art you create becomes a child of your unique experience.
What did Nelson Mandela and Miguel de Cervantes have in common? They both emerged from imprisonment with revolutionary ideas—their creative output shook the world.
Keeping good company alone
Working in solitude can be hard, because being a happy hermit is—evolutionarily speaking—a maladaptive trait. But rather than battle that discomfort (we’d be up against centuries of hardwired natural selection, remember), we can instead try to accept the tension as a feature of being human.
We can strive to weed out our own mental gardens so that our thoughts are welcome visitors to ourselves.
We can do our best to keep good company alone, in order to do the work that only we can do, and that we can only do without an addiction to distraction.
It might start by looking all of our insecurities straight in the eye, and then embracing ourselves anyway.