“Language…has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.” – Paul Tillich
When my relationship of five years ended a feeling I’d not encountered before arose within me. The feeling screamed at me: you need time to be alone! I felt I needed time to myself. I needed solitude. I didn’t know or understand why. I just remember saying to myself “I need two years, minimum. Two years by myself. Just me. Mark-time.”
I’d literally never had any time to myself. Went from being a baby, to High School, to a relationship, to University, to a job, to another relationship, to another job, to still being a baby. But, throughout it all I’d never really been alone. Never been forced to fend for myself in life. Ever.
I won’t lie, the prospect of facing the big bad World alone scared the Beetle Juice out of me! But, I strongly felt it was something I needed to do.
Firstly, I’d like to say I’ve noticed there’s a bit of a misconception and confusion regarding the distinction between loneliness and solitude. I’ve come to appreciate a Grand Canyon’s width of separation exists between solitude and loneliness. The canyon is born from and carved by the currents of intention. Solitude is self-imposed, it is something that is chosen. Loneliness isn’t.
If someone tells you they long for solitude, they aren’t telling you they long to be alone. They are telling you they long to be with themselves (in a non-Harvey-Weinstein-in-the-corner kind of way…). They are telling you they wish to be in their own company.
The solitude I’d asked for was delivered to me in abundance. However, just because you ask for something, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for it… In my pursuit of alone-time, I moved from an environment with friends, co-workers, and family all around me to one with literally NONE of that nearby (a new country and new professional path). I’ll be the first to admit, it was a little bit of an ill-advised leap… turned out to be harder than Hugh Heffner post-20-Blue-Pills on a Saturday night at the Playboy Mansion (I was going to go with “stiffer than Hugh Heffner on his death bed”, but I thought that a little tasteless…).
The good and bad thing about life is that it works in paradoxes. When shit is hitting the fan, you better believe it sucks to get smacked in the face with crap, but it’s that same shit you’re getting pelted with that will be the exact reason why you’ve got a raincoat on hand for the next time shit gets thrown into the fan. On the other side of the coin, when life is rainbows and unicorns I guarantee you you’re probably not learning much, so you might as well have a cup of coffee and enjoy it while it lasts.
In other words, near impossibly difficult things teach you the most. Horrendously easy things teach you the least. The lessons solitude offered me were like mathematical integration (seriously, who the fuck is able to do that?). Which by connection, means it taught me a lot.
It taught me how to:
1. Tune into my inner-frequency
I have greater internal understanding. Anger. Sadness. Happiness. Joy. Fear. Whatever I’m feeling inside, I’m able to tune in and listen. It’s about having an awareness of the feeling inside me, and being able to sit with it.
Let me use something we all know and loathe in ourselves and in others as an example: Anger. When I feel anger brewing inside, instead of blaming my external situation for my anger (this person, that thing, this traffic jam, whatever), I’m often able to stop and ask: Mark, why is it you are feeling angry right now?
Most of the time it’s just because I’m hungry. Or tired. In fact, I’ve run the numbers. 97.34% of the time it’s due to one of these things… that’s just a rough estimate though.
I’ve also gained a sliver of separation from my anger. I’m aware I have a choice. A silly emotion like anger is slowly losing its power over me. It’s easy to see anger in others, it’s not so easy to see it in ourselves. Especially if we are already possessed by it. How many times have you been talking to someone who you think is angry, and after mentioning this to them, they yell in your face spitting pieces of popcorn at you “WHAT!? ME?? ANGRY?? NO… I’M NOT ANGRY!!!”
Okay chief… whatever you say. I’m going to go sit over here now…
2. Be comfortable in my own company (i.e. when alone)
If I find myself sitting at home alone on a Saturday night reading a book… I’m quite okay with that. Actually, a lot of the time I’d choose this.
I enjoy myself. I enjoy my own company. I guess this is one way of saying that I’m able to be alone amongst my own thoughts without feeling lonely. In fact, I’ve learnt I actually NEED to do this – it’s part of who I am. I need more time alone than most. However, I must say being alone for too long is not a good idea…
3. Care less about stupid shit
What if I have no one to go out to dinner with? What if I’m seen eating by myself? What if I have to eat dinner alone?
Once upon a time these were real considerations for me. These thoughts might stop me from eating out, even though that’s what I wanted to do. Not anymore (most of the time). Eating out is a trivial thing of course. And I do still care very much about what people think of me in many situations… Not convinced I’ll ever totally not care about what other people think.
This caring used to take the form of what people thought about me in terms of how successful I was in their eyes – what kind of job I had, what kind of house I lived in, what kind of car I drove (actually, to be fair I never really cared about this, but the other two, for sure). I don’t really give a fuck anymore about any of that shit. My values don’t revolve around external garbage. Their internally oriented.
I value genuine humans. Honesty. Character. If you can’t be genuine with me, I’ll know it, and because of this I’ll struggle to value your company. It’s a pretty simple formula really. Life’s too short for horse shit and nonsense.
4. Appreciate the people around me
When you’re alone and the ship hits a rock, it feels like the titanic’s hitting the iceberg.
“Nooooo…. Jack!!!! Don’t die!! I love you!!”
We all need support. I thought I could go it alone.
I did for a time.
But, can’t forever.
Solitude taught me it’s stupid to try. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s rather foolish to have ever thought I could.
We all need support. We all need friends, family etc. We all need community. That last piece is something I see sorely lacking from today’s world.
To me, this means being more open in sharing my journey with others – to ask for help when I need it, and to lean on others when I’m feeling wobbly. Playing the strong independent motherfucker may make you feel tough, but it doesn’t really help much when the shiznit hits the fan and crap flies in your eyes. At that point you need someone to pass you a hanker-chief.
5. To be grateful
Solitude taught me to be grateful for what I have, rather than resentful for what I have-not.
At one point in time I had everything I thought I wanted (a “great” job, partner, house, ability to move up in career) and I was miserable. So, I blew that shit up because I’m an idiot who got his hands on some dynamite. I learnt through solitude that it is not the things we have that make us happy, but rather how we choose to perceive them.
Choosing to focus on what I have, as opposed to what I have-not, has changed my view of the world in a rather magical way. It has literally re-engineered my internal narrative. Whereas the internal narrative used to pipe on about a bunch of bullshit “you’re not doing enough, you don’t have enough, blah, blah”, it now pipes a different tune, “look at the amazing friends and family you have”.
Though to be fair, it’s very much still a work in progress. It takes a LOT of practice. I’ll admit that when I’m tired, being grateful for anything other than a bed becomes rather difficult… but it’s still possible. In order to practice, I keep a gratitude journal within which I write something each day that I’m thankful for – whether it be a friend, family member, a nice dinner, a hot shower, the sun, a McD’s McFlurry, whatever. Every day I do this. Because every day there’s something to be grateful for.
I guess you could say it’s all about moving from being a Negative-Nancy to being a Positive-Paul by choosing to adopt a different perspective.
- In a job you hate? Be thankful you have a job.
- Don’t have a job? Be thankful for your temporary freedom.
- Flat tyre? Be thankful you didn’t crash.
- Are you healthy? Because that’s enough to fill an entire journal. Be thankful for this. Very fucking thankful.
- Don’t have an ice-cream at the beach? What the fuck is wrong with you? Go get one! Also… be thankful for being at the beach.
- Balding? Fuck… I feel you. I’m still figuring out how to spin this one in a positive light.
And that’s that. I guess I should say, thanks for reading!