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Solitude: Build your Strongest Ally

Find yourself being by yourself

Photo by dorota dylka on Unsplash

A Solitary Caveman is a Dead Caveman

Humans are social creatures and we need interaction with other people to stay healthy. This is because our killer app as a species isn’t necessarily our brains per se, it’s how our brains allowed us to work together.

For our caveman ancestors, a human in isolation is at risk of being eaten by the tiger. And, at our core, our instincts are meant to keep us safe in an environment of ubiquitous fatality. This means that we are designed to be very sensitive to anything that could break the bond we have with other people.

Shame is a good example of an emotion arising from this survival requirement because it helps us avoid doing things that could get us kicked out of the tribe.

However loneliness and the need for social interaction is an even more basic drive arising from the same source. Solitary confinement is an effective punishment because of this need. There are numerous studies on the deleterious effect too much isolation has on a person’s mental health.

In today’s modern world, we have the luxury (I would say duty) to be more sophisticated. Our base needs are generally taken care of and our focus is on creating and advancing, not merely on physical survival. We can take a more long term view instead of merely survival.

Happiness, formerly a luxury that we could only focus on intermittently, is now something that is constantly in front of us as something we can achieve. In fact this possibility of happiness is the most stressful thing about being unhappy.

Distracting Us from Ourselves

Now with COVID-19 and our current new normal of social distancing we have become cut off from the everyday web of social interactions we took for granted. Online interactions are palliative but not a substitute.

This is necessary for the time being but it also presents us with an opportunity: just because we are designed to constantly seek social interaction doesn’t mean that we actually need it all the time.

The same web of social interactions that keeps us healthy can also be a cacophony that distracts us. Because we are so hardwired towards keeping ourselves in the tribe as a requirement for basic survival, it’s a hard thing to ignore.

Now that we are forced to reduce that interaction, we can use this time to help introduce the advantages of solitude back into our lives.

The first thing to recognize is that there is a difference between solitude and isolation. In both cases, the individual is alone but the difference is choice and what you do with that aloneness.

Isolation is generally involuntary and is outwardly focused on the lack of social interaction. It seeks external stimulus, even if it is simulated or virtual, to help indicate that the web of community is still there. Our current lack of social interaction could definitely feel isolating.

Solitude is generally voluntary and is inwardly focused. It is about eliminating distraction so we can concentrate on ourselves, on our internal drives and needs to find out how we really tick.

In this current situation where we are choosing to be alone, the difference in the two is strictly our attitude. We can focus on the lack of human connection and feel isolated or we can focus on ourselves, invite more solitude in our lives and being to finally get to know ourselves.

Who am I Really?

On the face of it, this idea seems ridiculous. We are ourselves, we are inside our own minds so what more is there to find out? Surely we know why we do things?

Well, we may have an explanation for why we do things but the goal of that explanation is as likely to be to make ourselves feel better as it is about actually explaining what our real drivers are.

Our insecurities often cloud or judgement because we are not willing to admit we have flaws since that opens up a can of worms as to what else maybe wrong with us. If we can’t rely on our judgement on ourselves, the thing we are supposedly the most qualified to know, then what does that imply about our judgement in general?

There are deep parts of ourselves and the way we act that we don’t like to admit exist. We build whole aspects of our personas just to cover up some aspect we don’t like. We think that we must think of ourselves as noble, smart, effective people.

The insidious thing is that the more insecure we are the more we hide from the messy imperfection of our humanity, of who we really are.

The thing to realize is that though we think we may know ourselves better than other people know is that doesn’t mean that we know ourselves well. Our egos don’t drive us to the truth about ourselves, they tend to drive us to reducing our the insecurity we feel.

Get to know the Caveman

So the question is what do we do? The answer is that we need to develop self-awareness so that we do not mistake our default primitive caveman drives, motivated as they are by that world of ubiquitous fatality that no longer exists, for a more sophisticated judgement of what we need to do to obtain happiness.

We need to develop our ability to detect when we are being driven and when we are driving.

This where solitude comes it, since the first step towards developing self-awareness is to make some space for it. We need to take ourselves out of the sea of externalities we swim in.

Our caveman instincts are going to dominate if we keep feeding them. And as we outlined above, one of the most tasty morsels is social interaction. Social interaction is the chocolate chip muffin to the apple of solitude: it’s not obviously unhealthy but too much of it is not good for us.

Solitude helps us to develop compassion towards ourselves. It allows us to spend time with our inner selves, to learn to pay attention to what we are feeling and thinking if only because without external distraction we have nothing else to focus on.

Solitude allows us to connect back to ourselves. This can be an uncomfortable feeling. And because we are used to seeing comfort as a goal in and of itself, we view bad feelings as negative in and of themselves. So it’s easy to avoid them when we have something less troublesome to distract us.

Solitude helps us to realize that these feelings just are, they are not good or bad. It’s the actions that our feelings drive us to which are good or bad and solitude clears our view so we can see that for what it is.

Walk, Write, Think

So what can we start with? There are still a lot of demands on our time, especially if we have kids at home. But there are a few things we can do

  1. Go outside and walk without listening to music or looking at your phone. Even with shelter in place, you just need to maintain 6 feet and not walk with groups. Solitude is about bringing our perspective back to the human scale that we actually exist at. Walking is another way to do this because we move at a human pace and see things at a human level.

  2. Journal. The goal is not to analyze but to just write what comes into your head without interpretation. most of it will be junk but buried in there will be nuggets of insight, threads you can pull on. Solitude is not about blanking your mind, it is about focusing your mind on yourself and writing is a great way to break into your inner experience.

  3. Think about yourself. Literally, just sit and think. Ask yourself questions. What do I like? Why did I do that? Why did I react that way? Solitude can be a good opportunity to build habits of self-examination that will help you recognize when you’re inner caveman has grabbed the wheel.

You are your own best ally and worst enemy. Solitude is the way you get to know which is which.