When we are surrounded by people, the hum of daily activity, it can be easy to lose our sense of who we are. For the most of us, life moves in a flurry of tweets, texts, meetings, calls. Even if we aren’t physically present with others, we know they are never far away.
On the face of it, of course, this is no bad thing. The value of community – large or small– is constantly preached by our present culture, even if it isn’t always practiced. For those of us who thrive on compassion, empathy, and human connection, surrounding ourselves with other people morning to night seems like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we want to share our days with our fellow humans? What else would we even be doing?
While these values are good and noble traits to cultivate, we would also do well to remember the dangers of giving ourselves and our time away too freely. When everyone goes home for the day, when we are separated from our loved ones, who are we really, underneath our social exterior?
Solitude is often presented in a negative light; the corollary of loneliness, heartbreak, loss. Yet solitude need not be any of those things if we choose to engage it as a contemplative practice, to make time for solitude as a way of knowing ourselves. It’s in moments of solitude that we can reconnect to the person who sits just below the surface. When we think about our interactions with others, our craving to be near them, our strong desire not to be left on our own, what is it that we are sensing? Perhaps we are not always happy with how we behave in social situations; we embarrass ourselves or get too attached, we’re over effusive or aloof and standoffish – yet either way we keep wanting more. Perhaps there is an underlying need within us, a need not yet confronted or uncovered, that is driving our behaviour.
The noise of social life drowns out our own deep inner voice so that we are not even aware that these questions exist. We might be lost in a desire to fulfil the expectations of others, to live up to a mediated social role that has become distant from who we are. Do we know who we are outside of these roles? Taking time and making space for solitude allows us to explore these questions, or maybe even to hear them for the first time.
When we are able to fully articulate an identity for ourselves that exists outside of all socialised persona, the mother, the life of the party, the perfect host, the helping hand, we are able to step back into life as a more complete version of ourselves. Ultimately, making space for solitude can be a way to truly give back to those around, by giving from a place of serenity and understanding rather than instinctual need.