Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In Praise of Solitude

If you didn't come of age in the 1980s as I did, you may not be familiar with the song "Cool Change," a Little River Band single from the summer of 1981. In the opening lyric, the singer declares that the thing he misses most in his life is "the time that I spend alone."

I was young, and my opinions unformed, when I first heard the song. Like many young girls, I daydreamed love stories, and here was a man singing in praise of time spent alone. I interpreted the song as a rejection of girls and romance and, accordingly, hated it. I believed all songs should be about love. Now, of course, I see that the song is about love, though not the romantic love that fueled my early adolescent fantasies, and not the narcissistic self-love that reduces other people to mere functionaries. It's about love for a private identity, an essential self that one can only discover in solitude.

Who are we when we're alone? What do we love, dream, and think about when no one is looking? When we're not playing the roles of husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, or one of an endless array of occupations? Relationships are to be treasured, certainly, as are the roles and responsibilities that reflect our values, interests, and talents. But I suspect that only in solitude do we learn what we truly love and value. The questions that fill the quiet tell us what we're interested in. The daydreams that keep the questions company tell us what we really want from life -- the kinds of people we want to be, the sort of work we want to do. When, in solitude, we come to understand ourselves, we have more to give others when we go out in to the world.

Solitude is one of life's underrated pleasures. Few songs other than "Cool Change" bother to praise it. Few movies or TV shows depict it as anything other than loneliness. (Books depict it a little more accurately, but then, books are read in solitude.) Many young people grow up completely unaware of its healthful effects, looking on it as something to be dreaded and fled. An acquaintance of mine shunned solitude to the extent that five minutes alone was unbearable; on getting home from work, she immediately phoned her best friend and dove into conversation to ward off quiet. Yet without solitude, how can we fashion any semblance of autonomy? How can we stop ourselves from becoming the sort of people who "power down" like robots whenever no one's around to entertain or be entertained by us?

In solitude I first "played classroom," and came to understand I wanted to be a teacher. In solitude I made the acquaintance of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley, Scout Finch, and Jo March, and I learned that I relish stories. In solitude I first experimented in making up my own stories, and discovered I wanted to write fiction. And I bless those in my life -- family, friends -- who taught me that "alone time" should be sought, not shunned, and thus helped me become who I am.

Furthermore, solitude is not, as I once thought, antithetical to romance. I had the good luck to fall in love with and marry a fellow introvert who understands well the pleasures of time alone. While we love to talk, play, and watch movies together, some of our nicest hours are spent sitting side by side on our couch, each of us with a book, perfectly comfortable in the quiet. Sharing space.

Sharing solitude.

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