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Humans are social beings. This is generally a good thing—spending time with family and friends provides a break from the trials of life, inspires personal improvement, and instills a sense of belonging necessary to healthy living. Especially during the holiday season, social relationships are incredibly beneficial to the mental health and general happiness of each individual member of the population.
But humanity has another asset—perhaps an even more powerful one—which is equally important to the development and maintenance of human life. This force—the self—has the power to shape our lives for the better and complement the benefits of social living if we only allow it to express itself.
In his transcendentalist masterpiece Walden, Henry David Thoreau expresses his observation, “Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain-storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon...when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.”
All too often, especially on college campuses, those of us who value occasional solitude are met with confusion, distrust, or even sympathy—provided the option of socialization, students rarely allow themselves to take their meals alone, much less take a long walk or simply allow themselves the company of their own thoughts.
Solitude is not something to be pitied. Those who partake in solitary self-reflection (mixed, of course, with a healthy amount of social interaction) often find that they are more confident, well-adjusted, and comfortable in the long run. It is not that we have no other choice than to be alone—indeed, we could (and do) find time to spend with those whose company we enjoy—but in solitude we do not truly feel alone.
The company of one’s own thoughts is not altogether different from the company of friends. The human mind has the ability to recognize its own mistakes, oppose itself regarding important issues, and provide solutions to problems over the course of everyday life. The dynamic psyche—unpredictable and ever-changing—learns from itself constantly, interacting on a level which baffles the most astute philosophers and scientists. When this wonder is considered, the inaccurate stigma behind the word “solitude” becomes abundantly clear. Since the company of one’s thoughts is always available, we are never truly “alone.”
And yet, some fear solitude. This is made evident by the rise of social media. Even when involuntarily separated from the company of others, we now have the ability to never let go, by staring at a screen, talking on the phone, or texting—essentially, tearing ourselves away from the company of our own thoughts.
Perhaps this is because happiness has become a social emotion. In the “party” atmosphere of Friday and Saturday nights, amidst the ever-present pressure of social media, and constantly surrounded by other human beings, many have forgotten that joy can be experienced without external recognition. It is possible for a moment in time to be appreciated—especially a solitary one—without presenting the moment to the world or even sharing it with another human being. The special joys in life—the moments of pure, unadulterated, fleeting fulfillment which can only be recognized in the company of one’s thoughts—need not necessarily be shared instantly with those around us.
But there is another side to this issue. Familiarity with our thoughts allows the reality of the world to come rushing in, unhindered by social distractions. This is a scary thing, and something which all BC students, from time to time, seek to avoid by quickly checking our phones and looking into the lives of our peers.
Just as solitude allows us to interact with our own thoughts and appreciate the joys of life on a personal level, it gives us the ability to learn to come to terms with this fear and eventually manage it. Social interaction provides a release from the pressures of the world. However, these pressures persist and become more daunting as time goes on if they are not met with individual confidence and personal strength—virtues that require an exercise in solitude.
It is OK to be alone. It is OK not to Instagram a picture of that sunset, that dirt road, or that page from the book you’re reading. It is OK to keep these moments to ourselves. It is OK to appreciate the beauty and joy present in life, and it is OK to recognize the pressures of the world without distraction.
In the end, Eating a meal alone or allowing the image of the sunset to enter only your mind’s eye may teach you something about yourself that no party or Snapchat Story could ever provide.
We should not fear solitude. Rather, we should revere it, appreciate it, and wholeheartedly accept it.