“How to Be Alone” By Sara Maitland: You Can Learn to Like Solitude

Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. Maria Popova, Brainpickings, on topic of how to be alone

It was when the marriage of Sara Maitland, author of How to Be Alone, ended that she first found solitude—was thrust into it, in fact—and then learned over time to love it. For 20 years now she’s not only lived alone but does so in a remote, sparsely populated part of Scotland. (See her previous A Book of Silence.)

In How to Be Alone the author offers some personal ideas and tips for others in similar circumstances: “Solitude can happen to anyone: we are all at risk. There is no number of friends on Facebook, contacts, connections or financial provisions that can guarantee to protect us.”

Kate Kellaway, The Guardian, asked Maitland about the difference between solitude and loneliness: “Solitude is a description of a fact: you are on your own. Loneliness is a negative emotional response to it. People think they will be lonely and that is the problem – the expectation is also now a cultural assumption.”

Some History of Solitude Per Maitland

Kids today actually get taught to fear being alone. Sophia Dembling (Psychology Today) quotes Maitland about this phenomenon:

We all know that sociability is culturally acquired: think of all the hours we put into teaching children to ‘share,’ not bite each other, to be grateful, to moderate and manage anger and, as they get older, to dress appropriately, not to steal or lie and to consider other people’s feelings. No one expects this to come ‘naturally’ to children, even though we also believe that human beings are genetically programmed for group interaction, are inherently social and need, for true flourishing, both to achieve intimate one-to-one relationships and to ‘win friends and influence people.’ But far from putting similar efforts into encouraging children to develop a healthy capacity to be alone, or to explore what being alone means to them, and to enjoy solitude, we go to extraordinary lengths to ‘protect’ them from any such practice and experience.

How Can You Increase Your Ability to Be Okay With Solitude?

Maria Popova, Brainpickings, says the various strategies suggested in How to Be Alone include “the exploration of reverie and the practice of facing the fear.” Specific examples of activities to try include walking or jogging alone.

And there’s this pointed advice from Maitland: “Most of us have a dream of doing something in particular which we have never been able to find anyone to do with us. And the answer is simple really: do it yourself.”

Some rewards to be reaped from stretching beyond your comfort zone?

  1. A deeper consciousness of oneself
  2. A deeper attunement to nature
  3. A deeper relationship with the transcendent (the numinous, the divine, the spiritual)
  4. Increased creativity
  5. An increased sense of freedom

More How to Be Alone Quotes (Thanks to Above Reviewers)

It feels strange to me that people who choose to be alone in the comfort of their own house are regarded, and too often treated, as weirdos, while those who choose to be alone several thousand feet above the snowline or in a tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean are perceived as heroes. 

Remember it is quite normal to be a bit frightened of being alone. Most of us grew up in a social environment that sent out the explicit message that solitude was bad for you: it was bad for your health (especially your mental health) and bad for your “character” too.

…(B)eing alone can be beneficial and it is certainly not detrimental to well-being, provided the individuals have freely chosen it. A good deal of the “scientific evidence” for the danger [of solitude] to physical and mental health comes from studies of people in solitary confinement.

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