Because our culture places such a high value on sociability, it can be deeply awkward to have to explain how much – at certain points – we need to be alone.
Because our culture places such a high value on sociability, it can be deeply awkward to have to explain how much – at certain points – we need to be alone. We may try to pass off our desire as something work-related: people generally understand a need to finish off a project. But in truth, it’s a far less respectable and more profound desire that is driving us on: unless we are alone, we are at risk of forgetting who we are.
We, the ones who are asphyxiated without periods by ourselves, take other people very seriously – perhaps more seriously than those in the uncomplicated ranks of the endlessly gregarious. We listen closely to stories, we give ourselves to others, we respond with emotion and empathy. But as a result, we cannot keep swimming in company indefinitely.
At a certain point, we have had enough of conversations that take us away from our own thought processes, enough of external demands that stop us heeding our inner tremors, enough of the pressure for superficial cheerfulness that denies the legitimacy of our latent inner melancholy – and enough of robust common-sense that flattens our peculiarities and less well-charted appetites.
We need to be alone because life among other people unfolds too quickly. The pace is relentless: the jokes, the insights, the excitements. There can sometimes be enough in five minutes of social life to take up an hour of analysis. It is a quirk of our minds that not every emotion that impacts us is at once fully acknowledged, understood or even – as it were – truly felt. After time among others, there are a myriad of sensations that exist in an ‘unprocessed’ form within us. Perhaps an idea that someone raised made us anxious, prompting inchoate impulses for changes in our lives. Perhaps an anecdote sparked off an envious ambition that is worth decoding and listening to in order to grow. Maybe someone subtly fired an aggressive dart at us, and we haven’t had the chance to realise we are hurt. We need some quiet time to console ourselves by formulating an explanation of where the nastiness might have come from. We are more vulnerable and tender-skinned than we’re encouraged to imagine.
By retreating into ourselves, it looks as if we are the enemies of others, but our solitary moments are in reality a homage to the richness of social existence. Unless we’ve had time alone, we can’t be who we would like to be around our fellow humans. We won’t have original opinions. We won’t have lively and authentic perspectives. We’ll be – in the wrong way – a bit like everyone else. We’re drawn to solitude not because we despise humanity but because we are properly responsive to what the company of others entails. Extensive stretches of being alone may in reality be a precondition for knowing how to be a better friend and a properly attentive companion.