“Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.” – Octavio Paz
“We are rarely proud when we are alone.” – Voltaire
A time for being with others
Christmas is naturally a time for family and friends, to be with others and follow our natural instinct to be communal animals and socialise. After a noisy and happy family meal today, I was struck to read a short (less than two pages) and thoughtful essay on ‘Solitude’ in A.C.Grayling’s collection The Heart of Things (which is full of many similar essays on a range of topics, all with interesting ideas).
He argues that being with others acts as a good reminder of our own weaknesses (after all, it’s difficult to fail when you’re always on your own). Society (in it’s more general sense) makes us aware of the demands and needs of others, and without criticism we become morally feeble with no conversation, disagreement or alternative opinions to challenge our ideas. It also brings obligations in terms of our relationships with parents, children, siblings, friends and others.
A time for being alone?
A.C.Grayling also argues that too much society can become debilitating, leading us to seek consensus and diluting our principles in the process. In a crowd we tend to suppress the inner voice which tells us to disagree or stand out from the mass, sapping our energy to feel strong emotions and passions. When we are with others we are much more likely to follow the lead of others, even when we know that we have a different opinion (sometimes to evil ends when in the wrong company).
Thus solitude has a useful purpose, and the physical absence of others allows us to know ourselves better, without the thoughts of others crowding out our own good opinions. On our own we have much more freedom to think differently and pursue independent ideas. That doesn’t mean that the best ideas come from isolated reflection, without the stimuli that comes from others, but it does mean that we need silent reflection to pursue the best of our own thinking.
Society and solitude both have a valuable place in our lives, although in an interconnected and ‘always on’ world it can be difficult to find opportunities for solitude. Over the Christmas weekend, I found myself responding to calls, facebook messages, emails and texts (although not as quickly as normal), just like any normal weekend. I switched off from twitter, and perhaps should have switched off from other communication channels too and focused on my family.
However, social pressures rarely let us switch off so easily, even if the pressure is sometimes imagined rather than real. Although I enjoy (really enjoy) occasionally switching off from the world, it doesn’t come easily and there are some who are surprised (and even upset) when this happens. They shouldn’t be, as spending time on our own can help us to make better use of the time we have with others.
The constant navigation between the demands of others, means that we rarely have quality time for anyone (including ourselves). My only New Year resolution for 2011 will be too switch off my phone and computer more often, and spend more quality time with myself and, most importantly, with the friends and family I value most.
The Heart of Things by A.C. Grayling (2005)