Increasingly we’re living and working by ourselves. How should we prepare for the pleasures and pains of our greater solitariness?
The lone figures in the paintings by the 19th Century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi seem uncertain. Does the solitary man or woman yearn for company or are they relieved by the absence of others? Their backs are turned as if we, the viewer, are an unwanted distraction, like someone calling their name from another room. We shouldn’t wonder then that being alone is given two names: solitude and loneliness. For it is a Janus-like state that can flash from contentment to abject pain when we look up and see that nobody is there.
The philosopher Paul Tillich reminds us that to be lonely is to be in pain; while those of us in solitude are expressing the deep satisfactions of being with just ourselves, noone else required. I’ve experienced both solitude and loneliness and know which feeling I’d run fast to avoid. I’ve even turned up at a party peopled with strangers to soothe my hunger for company – a conversation junkie in need of a fix. We may choose solitude, but we’d be mad to opt for loneliness. For isn’t this in every oppressor’s handbook: solitary confinement makes the sane prisoner unravel? None of us are able to be by ourselves for months on end.
The key to this is choice, I think. The pain of loneliness is the realization that no one is available to us; while the joy of solitude is knowing we have significant people to see whenever they are needed. In the final few months of a painful relationship breakdown my former partner was still present, but our connection was fractured: we were blind figures staggering in the dark. And I remember feeling more alone then than at any other time in my life.
By 2030 one in five of us will be living alone, according to recent government predictions. Couple this with the trend towards short-term contracts, part-time shifts, insecure freelancing and our work places are no longer the sure-footed sources of companionship and a sense belonging. We’re being increasingly cast adrift, being thrown back on ourselves for company, support and meaning. All of this may well suit the ascetic and solitary among us, the urban hermits, pet obsessives and gaming fanatics. But for those of us who thrive in the company of others, these are worrying trends indeed.
Now as I daydream about being alone I am writing at my corner desk, my back to the window, a man apart. My doorbell buzzes. I welcome the client or couple who’ve come to me for help. I offer them the balm of my attention; a professional presence to receive their pain, rage or maybe just confusion. I offer myself, but not my stories. We have a relationship, of course – I don’t feel lonely in my work. But it lacks the easy connection of an office full of colleagues and peers: the banter, the tussle over the remote control and the dreaded/loved Christmas party. And none of the draining politics too, I think, attempting to reassure myself.
The psychoanalyst Anthony Storr in his seminal book, Solitude, says we place too much weight on being with others to the detriment of our creative lives and inner worlds. These parts of ourselves can only be truly nurtured and set in flight by spending time alone. He considers diverse works of art: Beethoven’s symphonies say, or the novels of Graham Greene, to make his powerful case that we should each spend more time alone.
Which, of course, can also feel like a pressure. What if I sit at my desk all day and all I can write is doggerel and literary duds? And more frighteningly still, what if I end up with the endlessly repeated phrase running down the page like the unspooling mind of psychopath Jack Torrance in The Shining? The nightmare vision as the lunatic endlessly types: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Being alone means being with ourselves and we can never be certain just what we will find inside.
Or perhaps I’m being too alarming. Uncovering our hidden selves, our deepest wishes and fears by spending time alone shouldn’t, in fact, be frightening at all. For what we may discover as we sit quietly in our own company or take a solitary walk, is a new relationship, one we’ve never thought about in quite this way before, with who in fact we are. And if we can establish that we can make friends with ourselves, then the tumults of our lives, the squalling uncertainties in our living and working lives won’t feel quite so overwhelming after all. For we’ve manage to find all the steadying ballast we need – we just didn’t realize it was quite so close to home.
David Waters is a therapist and faculty member of The School of Life and runs our Relationships MOT service. For more information please click here. Our next class 'How To Spend Time Alone' will be on the 14 March. For more information and to book, click here.
This article originally appeared in the February issue of Elle Decoration. To subscribe to the magazine click here.