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Now that we’ve all sung the praises of self-reliance and frolicked hand-in-hand around the Maypole of quiet contemplation, there’s only one thing left to do. Beg the question.

is solitude really all it’s cracked up to be?

aaa

don’t mean to be perverse (it just happens) but I believe there is such a thing as too much solitude. There’s a reason they put the extra-bad prisoners in solitary confinement, after all. Too much alone time is punishment. Bad punishment. Worse than regular prison even. It might be slightly more punishing for your average, extraverted con-next-door, whose disinterest in prolonged thinking probably landed him in the hoosegow in the first place. But I’m betting it’s no walk in the park even for loner-turned-mass-murderer introverts. That thing we “i’s” love most – our own company – can actually turn around and bite us on the butt.

Picture that scene from Papillon where, crazed by isolation and hunger, Steve McQueen chases a cockroach around the prison cell and eats it alive. Andrew Zimmern notwithstanding, that is a man gone buggy with solitude.

The descent from solitude into loneliness and other nasty places (we’ll get to those in a moment) is a particularly slippery slope for introverts because it’s unfamiliar territory. We’re not used to feeling lonely when we’re alone and we’re not well-equipped to handle it. It isn’t as if we have a stable of party-animal acquaintances to call up for an impromptu night of roof-raising and cow-tipping. Most of us prefer to keep a small circle of close friends who are likely to be as antisocial as we are. We’re lucky if they pick up the phone at all. (I trust I’m not the only one this is happening to.) So when Sunday night rolls around after a nice peaceful weekend alone and the recharged introvert gets an itch to call up a friend for dinner & a movie, he may be out of luck. Suddenly a mournful wind begins to howl, the shutters start to flap and tumbleweeds blow heedlessly across the endless desert plain. Now is the solitude of our discontent.

nce it gets to this point, some kind of social interaction needs to take place or things really start to go downhill. In her paper Lonely Madness: The Effects of Solitary Confinement and Social Isolation on Mental and Emotional Health, Carly Frintner states, “Prisoners who are isolated for prolonged periods of time have been known to experience ‘depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember.'” It can even cause “impaired vision and hearing… tinnitus [(ringing in the ears)], weakening of the immune system, amenorrhea [(absence of menstrual periods in women)], premature menopause… and aggressive behavior in prisoners, volunteers and animals.” Holy cow.

somebody better pick up that phone.

cc

Don’t get me wrong: I love solitude. And one night of movies-for-1 probably won’t turn anyone into a serial killer (provided it’s not Gigli again.) Such extreme reactions to isolation take months or even years to develop. The point is, even the most stalwart introverts need some human contact. Even you. Even me. Like it or not, we are all social animals. Some more animal than others.


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[*apologies to Hollywood]

ntroverts cannot be trusted to show up for social engagements. aaaaaaa. We’re sorry. Sometimes, that hootenanny/clambake/hayride just starts to sound less and less appealing the closer it gets. By the time the big day arrives, full-blown buyer’s remorse has set in and we suddenly feel a bout of hay fever coming on. By the same token, some introverts can also be unreliable about blogging, being prone to long hiatuses involving imaginary sword fighting and hydroplane piloting. But such excuses are for amateurs. You deserve better.

So.

I’ve been busy reading a long, thought-provoking speech, delivered to the West Point plebe class by the noted literary critic William Deresiewicz and forwarded to me by my good friend Librarian Amy. At just under 6,000 words, Solitude and Leadership was massive even by military industrial complex standards – yet so compelling, it defied skimming, cramming, speed-reading or just skipping to the end to see who-dunnit. I found myself ingesting the whole thing word-for-word. Happy?

According to Mr. Deresiewicz, it turns out that leadership requires thinking (who knew?) and thinking requires solitude. People who can think for themselves, people with vision, know the value of solitude. Not just shy and misanthropic people (my personal favorites) but high-profile public types like General David Petraeus, a Thinker with a capital “T” who holds a PhD from Princeton and was named Public Intellectual of the Year by Prospect magazine. He rose through the ranks not by simply following orders or executing routines, but by revolutionizing counterinsurgency strategy in the Middle East. Strategy that took serious thinking. Thinking that required you-know-what.

o what does this have to do with you and me? What if we aren’t in the military and don’t give a fig about leading? What if we’re not intellectuals? What if we just want to be left alone? I’ll tell you what. As humans, and especially introverted humans, our battle for solitude begins the moment the umbilical cord bites the dust. Whether it’s in the labor room, at a meeting or on the battlefield, we’re surrounded by the powerful influence of other people. Which can be a good thing when we’re hungry infants without the know-how or cash to order a pizza. But very distracting when it comes to thinking for ourselves.

“…the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

oo

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote those words in his essay Self-Reliance over 150 years ago. And that was before anybody had to wrestle with Wikis, widgets or whether or not to buy an iPad. Web sites were places where spiders lived and tweets were birds’ way of saying, “You think being in the midst of this crowd is tough? Feh!”  He who attempts the independence of solitude today faces continual pressure to abandon it. To connect and stay hyper-informed. Deresiewicz calls the obsession with Twitter, YouTube and even good old TV “elaborate excuses to run away from yourself.” By “marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom” of message boards and round-the-clock news, he says, you are “continually bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts.” Or lack of thoughts, as was brilliantly illustrated by one Facebooker’s recent update: “I have nothing to say.”

ll this distraction impairs your ability to think, he exhorts. “Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. . . Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”

Don’t think I don’t know what’s going through your mind: This twit has some nerve ranting about the evils of social media on a blog. Well, let me tell you a thing or two, pal. I do have some nerve. And besides, Brother Deresiewicz doesn’t even mention blogs in his speech. Furthermore, he’s completely on-board with reading books, which this little tirade now resembles more than anything.

So here’s to solitude and being still with our thoughts (cocktails permitted).

I vant to be alone.