The value of solitude

Book: Solitude by Anthony Storr
Art: Alexander Pushkin at the seashore by Leonid Pasternak
Reading time: 5 mins

The relationship myth

In 385 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote The Symposium, a novel which depicted a series of fictional speeches. One of the speeches is given by the playwright Aristophanes who recalls the ancient myth that human beings were created in three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. According to this myth, human beings originally had four arms and legs which enabled them to run by turning over and over in a circular fashion. Humans were therefore created as rounded wholes.

Eventually, the Gods felt threatened by the power that the humans possessed and so Zeus, the God of thunder, decided that they should be bisected. As a result, the human race was made to have two arms and legs and because of this, they felt a sense of incompleteness which compelled them to seek a partner to achieve the wholeness that they once had. This concept that we achieve wholeness solely through the relationships that we form with others continues to exist.

The idea that interpersonal relationships are the touchstone of happiness and fulfilment may be a false one. This is because human nature consists of two instinctual but opposing drives: the wish to be close with other human beings and the desire to be an independent and significant individual.

“Confidence that one is of value and significance as a unique individual is one of the most precious possessions which anyone can have”

Anthony Storr, from Solitude

Thus, all human minds are made up of two co-existing temperaments (to varying degrees), which psychologist Carl Jung called extraversion and introversion. It may be that, compared to the extraverted temperament of needing interpersonal relationships, the introverted temperament, manifested by the capacity to be alone, is not given enough significance as a way of achieving wholeness. The ideal person may, in fact, exhibit both the introverted and the extraverted attitudes in a balanced fashion.

More than social

The nickname for our species, the ‘social animal’, makes sense when considering our evolution. Our ability to form attachments with others is crucial for the young, sick and pregnant, while for early humans, it ensured better protection from predators. The advantages of attachment, in particular, have been studied extensively. The psychologist John Bowlby believed that intimate attachments are the hub around which human life revolves and suggested that the primary need of human beings is for rewarding relationships with other human beings.

Bowlby’s studies showed that infants begin to demonstrate attachment behaviours around 9 months old, the time when the infant clings to their caregiver and protests if handed to a stranger. When the child is exploring, the caregiver (usually the mother) provides the child with a secure base that they can return to. Through this, trust is built and the child learns that the caregiver can be relied upon. The child then becomes more confident in their exploration of the outside world, and even attaches themselves to external objects. This type of attachment is called ‘secure attachment’ and Bowlby suggests that the capacity to form such attachments is evidence of emotional maturity and healthy psychology.

Bowlby’s belief that relationships are the hub that human life revolves around ignores some key aspects of human behaviour. As mentioned above, a sign of secure attachment is the ability to also form attachments to objects and, in the case of adults, ideas. Human lives, therefore, revolve around more than just relationships, and pursuits into hobbies, philosophies, religions, ideologies and art can also become primary sources of fulfilment to people’s lives. Thus, as both attachments to other human beings and external objects arise in a child with secure attachment behaviour, the ability to form attachments outside of relationships is also evidence of a healthy psychology.

The current cultural emphasis on the concept of finding the ideal romantic partner has only helped to cause misery. Unhappiness in relationships is often caused because people do not accept that the relationship comes with disadvantages. In general, no relationship with another human being is perfect and so humans need other hubs around which their life can also revolve around. Fulfilment can and should also be found in activities that require solitude and ones that are relevant to each person alone.

Fulfilment in creativity

The fact that humans invest both relationships and impersonal objects and pursuits with significance is evidence that one is not a substitute for the other. While the development of interpersonal relationships is critical for survival; a connection to objects and ideas is crucial for our cognition as it enables the mind to make links to the external world. The meaning that religion brings to many peoples lives is an example of the utility of the minds ability to connect external events with internal significance.

Creative pursuits also enable our minds to make connections between the internal world where our thoughts live and the external world where we live, and in turn, promote a sense of fulfilment. Thus, the human mind is constructed in such a way that the perception of order in the world is mirrored as balance in the inner world of the psyche. Creative work does this by integrating our observations of the world into our personality and there are many examples of famous writers, artists and scientists who have used their personal experiences to bring meaning to their existence by undertaking a creative process.

My feeling is that the concept of creativeness and the concept of the healthy, self-actualizing, fully human person seem to becoming closer and closer together and may perhaps turn out to be the same thing.

Abraham Maslow

Solitude is crucial for creativity to produce a sense of fulfilment. By removing oneself voluntarily from the day-to-day environment that one is used to, an individual becomes encouraged to think about the inner depths of their being. This promotes self-understanding as, by contemplating what is going on in our minds, we learn more about ourselves and our relationship with the world. Isaac Newton who, when forced to live in solitude because of the plague, dreamt up revolutionary ideas surrounding gravity which have pushed the collective knowledge of humankind forward.

Great writers in history, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, who experienced involuntary solitude in the form of solitary confinement used writing as a way to bring meaning to their suffering and prevent mental collapse. Thus, if a person regards the external world as something in which they can find fulfilment through creativity, their individuality appears and their life becomes meaningful.

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,

A use in measured language lies;

The sad mechanic exercise,

Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

Alfred Tennyson, in In Memoriam A.H.H.

The capacity to be alone

The mathematician Blaise Pascal once said that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. If the ideally balanced person finds meaning to his life in both his interpersonal relationships and his interests, it appears that being able to develop this ability to sit quietly in a room alone is significant. If the brain is to function at its best, we need to develop the capacity to be alone.

When from our better selves we have too long

Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,

Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,

How gracious, how benign, is Solitude

William Wordsworth, from The Prelude

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