Why do we have such a problem with being alone?

January 14, 2014 12:57 pm Comments Off on Why do we have such a problem with being alone? Views: 4556
Personal freedom has never been more celebrated, yet we are terrified of being alone, and regard those who choose to be so with suspicion. Sara Maitland on the joy of solitude


 Sara Maitland in Carlin’s Cairn, Galloway Forest Park

I live alone. I have lived alone for more than 20 years now. I do not just mean that I am single – I live in what might seem to many people to be “isolation” rather than simply “solitude”. My home is in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, and I live in one of the emptiest parts of it: the average population density of the UK is 674 people per sq mile (246 per sq km). In my valley, we have (on average) more than three sq miles each. The nearest shop is 10 miles away, and the nearest supermarket more than 20. There is no mobile-phone connection and very little through-traffic uses the single-track road that runs a quarter of a mile below my house. On occasion, I do not see another person all day. I love it.

But there is a problem, a serious cultural problem, about solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and wellbeing. In the first place, and rather urgently, the question needs to be asked. And then – possibly, tentatively, over a longer period of time – we need to try to answer it.

The question itself is a little slippery but it looks something like this: how have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world at least, at a cultural moment that values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and, above all, individualism, more highly than ever before, while at the same time those who are autonomous, free and self-fulfilling are terrified of being alone with themselves?

We apparently believe that we own our bodies and should be allowed to do with them more or less anything we choose, from euthanasia to a boob job, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions. We live in a society that sees high self-esteem as a proof of wellbeing, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude. We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is “sad, mad or bad”. Or all three at once.

“In 1980, US census figures showed that 6% of men over 40 never married,” wrote Vicky Ward in the London Evening Standard in 2008, “now 16% are in that position … ‘male spinsters’ – a moniker that implies, at best, that these men have ‘issues’ and, at worst, that they are sociopaths.

“One fears for these men, just as society has traditionally feared for the single woman. They cannot see how lonely they will be. But in time to ease my anxiety, a British friend came through town … ‘I want to get married,’ he said. Finally. A worthwhile man.”

In the middle ages, the word “spinster” was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well; a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that medieval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely; from personal choice not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear “for” such women – and now men as well.

Being single, being alone – together with smoking – is one of the few things that complete strangers feel free to comment on rudely: it is so dreadful a state (and probably, like smoking, your own fault) that the normal social requirements of manners and tolerance are superseded.

Usually, we are delicate, even overdelicate, about mentioning things that we think are sad. We do not allow ourselves to comment at all on many sad events. We go to great lengths to avoid talking about death, childlessness, deformity and terminal illness. It would not be acceptable to ask someone at a dinner party why they were disabled or scarred. It is conceivable, I suppose, that a person happy in her relationship thinks anyone who is alone must be suffering tragically. But it is more complicated than that: Ward’s tone is not simply compassionate. Her “fears for these men” might at first glance seem caring and kind, but she disassociates herself from her own concern: she does not fear herself, “one fears for them”. Her superficial sympathy quickly slips into judgment: a “worthwhile” man will be looking for marriage; if someone is not, then they have mental-health “issues” and are very possibly “sociopaths”.

Could it be that she is frightened? In her article she comments that, in New York, where she is based, there is a greater number of single women than single men, so if she feels that a committed partner is necessary to a woman’s sense of wellbeing then she might well feel threatened by men who want something different.

My mother was widowed shortly after she turned 60. She lived alone for the remaining 25 years of her life. I do not think she was ever reconciled to her single status. She was much loved by a great many, often rather unexpected, people. But I think she felt profoundly lonely after my father died, and she could not bear the fact that I was enjoying solitude. I had abandoned marriage, in her view, and was now happy as a pig in clover. It appalled her – and she launched a part-time but sustained attack on my moral status: I was selfish. It was “selfish” to live on my own and enjoy it.

Interestingly, this is a very old charge. In the fourth century AD, when enthusiastic young Christians were leaving Alexandria in droves to become hermits in the Egyptian desert, their bishop, Basil, infuriated, demanded of one of them: “And whose feet will you wash in the desert?” The implication was that in seeking their own salvation outside the community, they were neither spreading the faith nor ministering to the poor; they were being selfish. This is a theme that has cropped up repeatedly ever since, particularly in the 18th century, but it has a new edge in contemporary society, because we do not have the same high ethic of “civil” or public duty. We are supposed now to seek our own fulfilment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness – but, mysteriously, not to do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgment and weak logic. I write a monthly column for the Tablet (a Catholic weekly magazine) partly about living on my own. One month I wrote about the way a conflict of duties can arise: how “charitable” is the would-be hermit meant to be about the needs and demands of her friends? One might anticipate that a broadly Catholic readership would be more sympathetic to the solitary life because it has such a long (and respected) tradition behind it. But I got some poisonous letters, including one from someone who had never met me, but who nonetheless felt free to send a long vitriolic note that said, among other things: “Given that you are obviously a person without natural affections and a grudging attitude towards others, it is probably good for the rest of us that you should withdraw into your own egocentric and selfish little world; but you should at least be honest about it.”

And yet it is not clear why it is so morally reprehensible to choose to live alone. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by the various charges they make, probably because they do not know themselves. For example, the “sad” charge is irrefutable – not because it is true but because it is always based on the assumption that the person announcing that you are, in fact, deeply unhappy has some insider knowledge of your emotional state greater than your own. If you say, “Well, no actually; I am very happy”, the denial is held to prove the case. Recently, someone trying to console me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy: “You may think you are.” But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it – I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth.

Ellen MacArthur
 Ellen MacArthur spent 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds alone in 2005. Photograph: Franck Prevel/AP

The charges of being mad or bad have more arguability. But the first thing to establish is how much solitude the critics of the practice consider “too much”. At what point do we feel that someone is developing into a dangerous lunatic or a wicked sinner? Because clearly there is a difference between someone who prefers to bath alone and someone who goes off to live on an uninhabited island that can only be reached during the spring tides; between someone who tells a friend on the telephone that they think they’ll give tonight’s group get-together a miss because they fancy an evening to themselves, and someone who cancels all social engagements for the next four months in order to stay in alone. If you are writing great books or accomplishing notable feats, we are more likely to admire than criticise your “bravery” and “commitment”. Most of us did not find Ellen MacArthur sad, mad or bad when she broke the single-handed sailing circumnavigation record in 2005, even though it meant being entirely alone for 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds.

There are no statistics for this, but my impression is that we do not mind anyone being alone for one-off occasions – particularly if they are demonstrably sociable the rest of the time – or for a distinct and interesting purpose; what seems to bother us are those individuals who make solitude a significant part of their life and their ideal of happiness.

It is all relative anyway. I live a solitary life, but Neil the postman comes most days. The cheerful young farmer who works the sheep on my hill roars by on his quad bike at least three or four days a week, passing with a cheerful wave. I have a phone; I go to church every Sunday. I have friends and children, and sometimes they even come to visit me. Small rural communities are inevitably, oddly, social – I know the names and something of the circumstances of every single person who lives within five miles of me. (There is nothing in the world more sociable than a single-track road with passing places.) And even if I lived in deeper solitude I would live with a web of social dependencies: I read books that are written by people; I buy food that is produced by people and sold to me by people; I flick on the light switch and a constantly maintained grid delivers electricity and my lights come on.

So it is useful to ask oneself how much solitude it takes to tip over into supposed madness or badness; it is certainly useful to ask those who are being critical of anyone who seems to enjoy more aloneness than they themselves feel comfortable with.

In his book Solitude, Philip Koch attempts to break down the accusations into something resembling logical and coherent arguments, so as to challenge them: he suggests that the critics of silence find the desire for it “mad” (or tending towards madness) for various reasons.

Solitude is unnaturalHomo sapiens is genetically and evolutionarily a herd or pack animal. We all have a basic biosocial drive, according to Paul Hamlos in Solitude and Privacy: “sharing experience, close contiguity of comradeship and face-to-face co-operative effort have always been a fundamental and vital need of man (sic) … the individual of a gregarious species can never be truly independent and self-sufficient … Natural selection has ensured that as an individual he must have an abiding sense of incompleteness.” People who do not share this “force of phylic cohesion” are obviously either deviant or ill.

Solitude is pathological. Psychology, psychiatry and particularly psychoanalysis are all insistent that personal relationships, ideally both intimate and sexually fulfilled, are necessary to health and happiness. Freud originated this idea and it has been consistently maintained and developed by attachment theorists (such as John Bowlby) and particularly object-relation theorists (such as Melanie Klein) – and is generally held and taught throughout the discipline. (This may also underpin the idea that you are not “really” happy on your own. Since you need other people to be mentally well, then thinking you are happy alone is necessarily deluded.)

Solitude is dangerous (so enjoying it is masochistic). It is physically dangerous because if you have even a minor accident there will be no one to rescue you, and it is psychically dangerous because you have no ordinary reality checks; no one will notice the early warning signs.

These three arguments are based on assumptions that – were they correct for all people at all times – would indeed need to be answered. I personally think (and I’m not alone) that they are not correct in themselves and do not allow for individual difference.

The “moral” arguments, however, at least as Koch defines them, are rather more absurd. This second group of objections to solitude tend to be exactly the opposite of the first group.

Solitude is self-indulgent. The implication here is that it is hedonistic and egotistical – that somehow life alone is automatically happier, easier, more fun and less nitty-gritty than serious social engagement, and that everyone in the pub is exercising, comparatively at least, noble self-discipline and fortitude, and spending hours a day in the unselfish miserable labour of serving their neighbours’ needs.

Solitude is escapist. People who like being alone are running away from “reality”, refusing to make the effort to “commit” to real life and live instead in a half-dream fantasy world. They should “man up”, get real, get a grip. But if social life is so natural, healthy and joyous as contemporary society insists, why would anyone be “escaping” from it?

Solitude is antisocial. Well, of course it is – that’s the point. This argument is tautological. But “antisocial” is a term that carries implicit rather than explicit moral condemnation; it is clearly a “bad thing” without it being at all clear what it might mean. All this actually says is “solitude is preferring to be alone rather than with others/me [the speaker] and I am hurt”. It is true, but is based on the assumption that being alone is self-evidently a bad thing, and being social is equally self-evidently a good thing.

Solitude evades social responsibility. This implies that all of us have something called a “social responsibility”, without defining what that might be or consist of, but whatever it is, for some unexpressed reason it cannot be done by a person who is – for however much of their time – alone.

Now, clearly, even here, there are some interesting discussions to be had. What exactly do personal relationships provide that nothing else can offer? Could, for example, Anthony Storr be right about creative work offering compensatory alternative or even better gratification? Or a sense of meaningfulness? Could some people’s peaceful, happy solitude function as an antidote, or even a balance, to the frenetic social activity of others? What, exactly, is our social responsibility in a society in which most people feel powerless? How does multiculturalism work in terms of individuals as opposed to groups? Why do other people’s claims to be happy in a different way from oneself provoke so much anxiety – and why is that anxiety so commonly expressed as judgment and condemnation, rather than genuine concern? How does a society choose which issues it allows itself to be judgmental about, if it has no clear idea of the ultimate good? And, above all, why are these conversations not happening? I believe it is because of fear. Fear paralyses creativity, stultifies the imagination, reduces problem-solving ability, damages health, depletes energy, saps intelligence and destroys hope. And, also, it does not feel good.

Fear muddles things up; it is difficult to think clearly when you are scared. When we are frightened, we tend to project this on to other people, often as anger: anyone who seems different starts to feel threatening. And one problem with this is that these projections “stick”. If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish, there is bound to come a cold, grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply “alone”. There is a contemporary phenomenon which adds to the problem: the mass media make money out of fear.

You may have noticed that the UK experiences waves of grim killer diseases – even though, proportionately, very few people actually get these illnesses. A successful “media illness” has to meet quite particular criteria – among other things, it has to have a very complex official name and a very vivid popular one: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (and its human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease) AKA mad cow disease was perfect. The illness should also be terminal but rare (CJD only occurs in one in 1 million people a year, worldwide, and the majority of these cases have no link whatsoever to contaminated beef products) so that it is most unlikely that any readers will contract it; and, if possible, it has to be caused by the greed and stupidity of someone else (the food industry and farmers in this case).

Diseases are quite easy to manipulate in order to rack up the right sort of fear – the sort that sells papers. And there are other fears to play on. At the moment, a very popular media-inspired terror is the threat of the “loner”.

Once upon a time, and not very long ago, the word “lone” had rather heroic and adventurous connotations: the Lone Ranger was not sad, mad or bad; Texas freely and proudly adopted its nickname: the Lone Star state. But if you look up “loner” on Wikipedia you will find this alphabetical list of related terms:


Avoidant personality disorder
Byronic hero
Dysfunctional family
Lone wolf (trait)
Major depressive disorder
Schizoid personality disorder
Social phobia
Social rejection
Tragic hero

Greta Garbo
 Greta Garbo chose to retire at the age of 35 to ‘live another life’. Photograph: Cine Text/Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd


I have put into italics the four terms that do not directly correlate with “sad, mad or bad”, although the context of the list raises questions about even them – is it OK to be “introverted”? Are hermits actually crazed? Is solitude like major depressive disorder? Are Byronic heroes lonely? But what are more interesting are the absences: adventurer, sensitive, mystic, creative genius, bereaved, castaway/Crusoe, victim of solitary confinement, wanderer.

Greta Garbo was a famous loner, though, in fact, she never said “I want to be alone” (the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya, whom Garbo played in Grand Hotel, said it). She was a very great actor: the film historian David Denby wrote in 2012 that Garbo introduced a subtlety of expression to the art of silent acting, and that its effect on audiences cannot be exaggerated. “Worlds turned on her movements.” She was sufficiently successful to retire at 35 after making 28 films. Near the end of her life – and she lived to be 85 – she told Sven Broman, her Swedish biographer (with whom she was co-operating), that she “was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio … I really wanted to live another life.” So she did. In retirement she adopted a lifestyle of simplicity and leisure, sometimes just “drifting”. But she always had close friends with whom she socialised and travelled. She did not marry but did have serious love affairs with both men  and women. She collected art. She walked, alone and with companions, especially in New York. She was a skilful paparazzi-avoider. Since she chose to retire, and for the rest of her life consistently declined opportunities to make further films, it is reasonable to suppose that she was content with that choice.

It is evident that a great many people, for many different reasons, throughout history and across cultures, have sought out solitude to the extent that Garbo did, and after experiencing that lifestyle for a while continue to uphold their choice, even when they have perfectly good opportunities to live more social lives. On average, they do not turn into schizoid serial killers, predatory paedophiles or evil monomaniacs. Some of them, in fact, turn into great artists, creative thinkers and saints – however, not everyone who likes to be alone is a genius, and not all geniuses like to be alone.

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