The meaning and value of solitude, I find, shifts with age. When we are young, say, in our 20s and just entering into real adulthood, learning to be alone with ourselves is viewed as a valuable lesson. With it comes a sense of independence, self-reliance and the necessary autonomy to be a healthy, functioning adult.
In the formative years, the sovereignty of self is recognized as having worth. And with any luck, one has the foresight to enjoy it at that stage of life. Because give it a few decades, and a pile-up of professional and family obligations, social engagements and travel, is likely to have cluttered our lives to the point of distraction and made alone-time a rare and precious commodity.
Now that I am at the age to enjoy the elixir of solitude, I am, ironically, confronted with the perception that at this stage of life, it is often taken as a sign of being an anti-social, unhealthy recluse. I pass up an invitation to a vampire movie I have no interest in seeing or to a dinner I am just too tired to attend, and suddenly I have become a shut-in.
Whatever happened to our appreciation of engaged seclusion?
When I recently turned down an invitation to a lecture that promised to be rambling and tedious, why did I sense tacit reproof that I was being ungracious? And why is it that at a time in our lives when we have learned how to keep our own company with a genuine degree of pleasure and self-sufficiency, choosing to do so is often disparaged?
(MORE: What I Learned From Sitting in Silence)
Alone, Not Lonely
I understand that as the population ages, we are increasingly attuned to, or at least aware of, the negative consequences that diminished human contact can have on health. A recent article in The New York Times reported that “Loneliness has physical manifestations, among them high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, a diminished immune response, depression, sleep difficulties, cognitive decline and dementia.” And the Huffington Post recently addressed the debilitating societal neglect that people may suffer as they grow older.
There is no denying that the isolation that sometimes comes with age can be damaging to both morale and health. Nor can one refute that friends, family and a network of neighbors are vital to a full, enriched life at any age. But it seems to me we should be able to acknowledge the value of human community without sacrificing our appreciation of solitude — and without it being equated with loneliness.
One of the great pleasures of aging is the increasing comfort we develop with our own interior world. I would further make the case that time spent alone does not necessarily indicate some unnatural reclusiveness or asocial neurosis; in fact, it can be uniquely restorative.
It’s not just the quiet afternoon with the book or the CD that offers renewal, but the psychic replenishment that comes in absorbing these without feeling the immediate need to respond, rejoin, react, discuss, articulate or analyze.
Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom (especially among social-networking “gurus”), experience can be savored fully without interpersonal exchange; its value is not measured by the degree of interactivity it generates. And the reflection that is an invariable part of such solitude allows for a kind of interior validation, an instinctive certainty, even, about those things that matter. An acceptance of one’s own small, imperfect universe can bring its own sense of renewal.
Besides that, time spent alone also makes you more discriminating toward — and more appreciative of — time spent with others. Acquiesce to every concert, every movie, every lunch date, and it is easy to forget why you’ve agreed to any of it. Being selective about both time spent alone and with others enhances each. Like anything else, social contact, when chosen rather than imposed, has greater value and meaning.
I’m not advocating isolation. But it seems to me that in our haste to recognize the hazards of involuntary seclusion, we may be dismissing the value of solitude as a sustaining and vital force in our lives.
“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself,” wrote the French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Which makes me think that when it comes to invitations, the greatest courtesy may come in hearing — and accepting — those summons that issue from within.