In praise of solitude

While waiting for my friends to show up for our dinner date, I met a delightful woman at the bar who struck up a conversation with me. I asked her whether she was also waiting for someone; she said no, she was out alone celebrating her 58th birthday. After wishing her a happy birthday and making introductions, she talked about the freedom she feels now that she is in her late fifties, and how she wished she had experienced this “life giving, don’t-give-a-damn freedom” earlier in life. She went on to tell me how it took being in her fifties, with her children grown and her husband dead, for her to feel okay about spending time alone, treating herself to dinners and movies, taking walks alone, sleeping alone. She was forced into learning to appreciate solitude, rather than choosing it willingly. We had a lovely conversation about the value of enjoying one’s own company at any age.

It got me thinking about enjoying solitude.

I appreciate how in some ways, we as a society are becoming more open-minded and accepting of solitude: meditation, silent retreats, and journaling are now commonplace solitary activities.Travel groups advertise trips for the solo traveler. Young folks are delaying marriage or choosing to remain single. You no longer have to be a monastic or widow/widower to justify your solitude. I love that instead of the heavy, judgmental “spinster”, we now use the more fun and free “bachelorette” to describe single women, or, my favorite: “singleton” (shout out to Bridget Jones).

Yet in other ways, we are still wary of solitude and being single; even the words “unmarried” and “childless” have negative connotations (especially for women), implying that something is missing or you are somehow incomplete if you are single or have no kids. Certainly loneliness is painful and can be emotionally and physically devastating. As humans, we are wired for social connections with others, and we benefit from nurturing relationships. Extreme loneliness can contribute to chronic illnesses, depression, despair, alienation, or suicide, the ultimate loneliness.

But being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. It may take some practice, but we can learn to enjoy our own company without using others or our electronic devices as a defense.

Enjoying your own company

I’m reminded of the joke: My mind is like a bad neighborhood – I never go there alone. If you are unable to tolerate physical or emotional solitude, need constant distractions, and tend to fill your life with so many events, dates, friends, work, screen time, etc. that you are left feeling drained and empty, then it may be useful to ask yourself whether you are using these things as defenses to avoid some underlying problem. Sometimes we may need a life coach or therapist to help us explore the inner motives for our outer behavior, and the negative self-talk or anxiety that makes us fill our headspace and lives with too many activities, people, and things.

With practice, we can relearn the enjoyment of solitude. We were good at it as kids. We may remember this from our own childhood or from watching a child play alone for hours, delighting in every moment, unconcerned or unaware of the gaze of others.

So don’t wait until friends and loved ones are gone or are unavailable. Go alone to that movie you’ve been dying to watch, treat yourself to a solo dinner at a nice restaurant (with the phone turned off! – phones are not dinner companions), sit at the mall and people watch, take yourself to an art show, museum, or play, or just stay home with the sole purpose of having fun hanging out with yourself. Knock yourself out.