Solitude

On Monday I took the day off work and drove to the Glass House Mountains to climb this peak. Despite the relatively easy hike, the view from the top was absolutely magnificent. It was a full 360 view of a steep drop-off on all sides and stunning landscapes as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t a very long hike, so I gave myself a few hours to rest on the summit and just take in the view. I considered leaving my phone in the car so I could totally lose track of time and be in the moment, but I decided the photo opportunity was too good to miss. So I put my phone on flight mode for the afternoon to make sure I wouldn’t have any distractions and found a comfortable hollow in the rocks on the summit to sit back and admire the scenery.

I’ve been wanting to do this for a while now. Not just the hike thing, but the ‘take-a-day-off-to-be-alone’ thing. I was craving solitude, and it felt refreshing and invigorating to finally meet that need.

Now it may sound crazy for a mostly-extrovert to crave solitude. Especially when I’ve spent most of the last three months at home in isolation. How can you have three months of alone time and still want solitude?

For me it all boils down to the difference between solitude and loneliness. Others have written helpful pieces on this distinction, but for me it boils down to this: solitude is enjoying quality time with yourself. Merely being alone doesn’t guarantee solitude: it needs to be quality time alone. Over the last three months, I’ve spent nearly 24 hours a day alone, but I’ve still been starved for solitude… because working from home, staring at a laptop, and doing house work alone don’t count as ‘quality time.’

“Solitude is pursuing quality time with yourself.”

Quality time is my main love language. I love nothing more than to sit and be fully present with someone, taking in every word and reading every unspoken gesture of body language as I connect deeply with them. I like spending time with people in other ways too, like watching a movie or cooking together, but that’s not the same as quality time where we give each other our undivided attention. For me, there’s something special about being fully present with someone.

That’s why it’s so insulting when you’re trying to enjoy quality time with someone and they keep checking Facebook or they take a random phone call just as you’re in the middle of pouring your heart out to them, as though the possibility of a conversation on the phone is more real to them than the actual conversation you’re already having with them. Just being with someone doesn’t guarantee quality time; you need to be fully present.

I see solitude the same way. Being alone doesn’t guarantee the sort of solitude that is rejuvenating. Solitude is quality time with yourself. It’s not quality time if I keep checking Facebook or I feel the need to ‘occupy myself’ by playing music, podcasts, or TV. Those things have their place… but they don’t count as being present. They’re not quality time.

But when you do get quality solitude, it feels amazing. Rejuvenating. It honestly feels like one of the biggest life hacks ever, and I’m constantly asking myself why I don’t do it more.

I realised pretty early on that to flourish in long-term singleness, I would have to learn to enjoy my own company. That doesn’t come naturally to me at all as a mostly-extrovert from a loud, chaotic family of 10. I still struggle with it sometimes, and despite my high hopes for self-isolation being a time of blissful solitude, I’ve squandered my alone time with distractions the past few months.

But when I do get quality solitude, it feels amazing. Rejuvenating. It honestly feels like one of the biggest life hacks ever, and I’m constantly asking myself why I don’t do it more. I genuinely believe that solitude is one of the special bonuses that comes with singleness, and I believe it’s an important part of pursuing flourishing for single people everywhere.

Solitude in Singleness

I realised pretty early on that if I wanted to thrive in singleness, I would have to learn to enjoy my own company. That doesn’t come naturally to me at all as a mostly-extrovert from a loud, chaotic family of 10. I still struggle with it sometimes, and despite my high hopes for self-isolation being a time of blissful solitude, I’ve squandered my alone time with distractions the past few months.

But learning healthy solitude has become one of the greatest gifts of singleness in my experience. It’s not just a way of tolerating being alone; it’s an enriching way of deliberately enjoying the extra freedom and headspace I have in singleness. [I apologise to all the young parents reading this who are feeling overcome with envy right now as they would give their right arm for just one hour of peaceful alone time, let alone an entire day of peace… but maybe this is an opportunity to remember that singleness comes with its own privileges as well as challenges, just like marriage.]

See, one of the weird things I’ve noticed about solitude as a single person is that it’s not generally as socially acceptable to enjoy my own company as it is for, say, a parent to crave alone time. There’s a weird kind of stigma that comes with being too comfortable spending time on your own. Like when you see someone at a café having a coffee on their own, and you instantly assume they’re either waiting for someone to join them or they’re a sad loser who has no friends. Especially if that person isn’t distracting themselves on their phone or newspaper but just sitting with their own thoughts, anyone watching just thinks that’s a weird and uncomfortable thing to do. Kind of like how we ridicule someone as a “psychopath” if they enjoy driving home from work in silence without playing music or podcasts to drown out their thoughts.

When I mention to people that I went out to see a musical or a concert, one of the first questions they ask is: “Who did you go with?” When I reply that I went alone, the conversation grinds to a halt as people awkwardly realise they have no script for responding to such an uncomfortable confession. Who goes to a musical on their own?!

Well, I do. I actually love it. But for years I’ve had to pretend I don’t enjoy it too much, because that just makes people uncomfortable. It’s okay if no one else was free to join me that night or if none of my normie friends have the same taste for obscure musicals I do… but if I actually chose to spend a Friday night at the theatre on my own, I get some very concerned looks. They don’t seem to get that I can love people AND love my own company. I’m a people person AND I also treasure quality alone time.

When I was living in Melbourne, I went to see a musical about some teenage boys in a Catholic boarding school coming to terms with their faith, sexuality, and love for each other. It was a deeply emotional experience, hitting so close to home for me that when the final number finished, I was weeping too hard to applaud as the cast took their bows. To a critical onlooker, I must have looked like a hot mess of a loser, sitting alone in the theater crying about a fictional story, but let me tell you: that was one of the most cathartic experiences of my adult life and I am so glad I got to experience it alone. I am so glad that in that moment I was able to sit and just experience the depth of emotions without distraction, fully present to every thought in my head without any pressure to try to verbalise such complex feelings out loud to another person. In a strange way, I felt incredibly seen and known because I understood myself far more deeply than I had before that night. I didn’t have to worry about someone else invalidating those feelings by not sharing my emotional reaction. Imagine if, at the end of such a raw experience, a friend had turned to me and nonchalantly asked, “So, what did you think of the show?” forcing me to reduce the complex feelings I had to a few meagre words. (Incidentally, I did go back to see the same musical with a friend a few weeks later, and as I started tearing up in the first song, he touched my arm and asked if I was okay. He was just being a caring friend, but I was mostly annoyed that every time he glanced over at me, it would shatter the emotional bubble I was experiencing, then I’d feel pathetic for having such a strong reaction to the story. But it all worked out in the end, because I went back to see the show A THIRD TIME on my own and it was the most powerful performance yet. Okay, I’m a little bit obsessed with the show.)

For similar reasons, I love admiring a sunset when there is no one else to see it. When I’ve stopped to admire sunsets with other people, they often feel the need to comment on what we’re seeing, to use words to describe how beautiful it is. But sometimes words just detract from the rugged beauty of a perfect landscape. Sometimes it is more beautiful just to be quietly present, having the space to feel every emotion and the silence to hear every thought running through your head in that moment. Solitude is beautiful.

Cultivating Solitude

So how do we cultivate healthy patterns of solitude? Maybe—like me—you’re an outgoing people person who enjoys fast-paced noisy chaos. The thought of peaceful solitude sounds nice, but it’s a bit out of reach.

Well here’s my life hack for cultivating solitude as an extrovert: think of it as quality time with a friend, except that the friend is you.

Here’s what I mean. Would you browse Facebook, listen to the radio, check your texts while having quality time with a friend? Probably not. Don’t do it to yourself either then.

I find I often need to be doing something to stop myself from getting bored (though I did have an unusually focused reflection last night when I snuggled under the covers of my bed and stared at a wall for half an hour while processing all my thoughts from the day). Times like that are rare for me, so I try to strike a balanced middle ground of doing something interesting enough to stop me getting bored, but not interesting enough to distract me from myself. I love going for walks. Or knitting/crafting. Even sitting down to eat a meal (without watching TV over dinner!) and quietly savouring every sensation of that experience. Sometimes I’ll even treat myself to eating out or having a sneaky goodie at a café on a quiet Saturday morning.

If you’re not sure where to start… just do what you want to do anyway, but consider doing it alone. Want to see that new movie? Watch it, and buy yourself some Malteasers as a treat. Craving some good Thai food? Eat out at your favourite restaurant and leave your phone in the car. Needing some fresh air? Go on that hike, admire the beautiful sunset from the lookout, and enjoy the fact that you don’t have to verbalise the view to anyone. These are all great experiences to share with people too (and I love doing that regularly), but don’t feel like you have to wait for someone else to show up before you can enjoy nice things for yourself. You deserve nice things regardless of who else is there.

During Covid I’ve been going for regular runs (sans phone) along the river at sunset and checking in with myself. I’m abysmal at talking to myself so this actually took some work, but again, the life hack served me well: just treat it like quality time with a friend. If I were going for a run with a friend, what would I do? I’d ask questions like, “How was your day today? Did anything unusual happen? How did that make you feel? How are you coping with that thing that happened last week?”

So I just ask those things to myself. How was my day today? I replay my day and listen to those thoughts. How did I feel about the things that happened today? Be present to the emotions I’ve pushed aside. Actively empathise with those feelings and validate why it’s okay to feel that way. You’d think empathising with yourself should be the easiest thing ever because they’re literally your own feelings, but often we’re quick to invalidate or dismiss our own emotions. At each point in the run, I try to imagine the patience and kindness I’d show to another human being in that conversation, then gently extend that kindness to myself.

By the end of the 40-minute run, the sun has set and I’ve descended into meaningless small talk again. I’ve processed my thoughts from the day and reflected patiently, so when I turn my attention to other people in the evening, I have a clear mind and an open heart to offer them now. This little ritual of cultivating quality time alone is such a valuable part of flourishing for me. It makes being single not just tolerable but desirable. Beautiful. Peaceful.

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