The Struggle with Solitude
Are you scared to slow down?
People struggle with solitude. When was the last time you forced yourself to be still for a prolonged period of time? Quiet. No chatter or screen. If you're like most people, it's probably been awhile. We are constantly surrounded–at home, on our commute, in the grocery store. Even when we're "by ourselves," we're usually inundated by people talking to us through our television, inbox, and text messages. Noise constantly comes at us on all sides.
It may be tempting to claim we "don't have time" to slow down and stop, but perhaps there's something different going on. Consciously and unconsciously, most people go to great lengths to avoid solitude. They don't want to be alone with their own thoughts and feelings for very long, if at all. It's unfamiliar and they're scared. Instead, they conveniently find things to drown out the chatter.
Many people bemoan their busy lives but actively participate in creating their chaos. Do you enjoy having season passes to a family circus? If you're tired and overcommitted, carefully consider why. We won't stop working because we're addicted to feeling important. We lie to ourselves about how urgent things are and are arrogant enough to insist that they must be done by us. We live in overdrive trying to chase away insecurity. Despite the cost of this dysfunction, hyperactivity is often a go-to defense against discovering what might happen if we slow down.
People seem to have lost the ability to be bored. Someone is always eager to swoop in to entice and entertain us. Our attention is a commodity the world is paying a mint for, and we're more than happy to give it away. Adults who grew up B.S. (before screens) struggle with white space lulls, even though they used to be a regular part of the rhythm of life. We're raising a generation that has never had to go without on-demand distraction. We have yet to see the downstream effects of this, but I sense they won't be good. What happens in a world where imagination has atrophied and withered?
Solitude can be disquieting. For many individuals, stillness and silence are uncomfortable. Untethering even. In some cases, people would prefer physical pain to the prospect of being alone with themselves. A series of studies led by University of Virginia professor Timothy Wilson revealed that many research participants opted to administer electronic shock to interrupt a brief stint (6-15 minutes) without external sensory stimuli. For a quarter of the women and two-thirds of the men who participated in the research, doing something painful seemed better than doing nothing at all.
The pandemic showed us how unfamiliar we are with being alone. When life came to a grinding halt, many people nearly snapped when forced to downshift. We were, in many ways, unmoored. Months of isolation created a crisis of loneliness and led to a surge of depression. Self-medication spiked. Sourdough, booze, Netflix, and porn became over-relied upon strategies for survival.
When we get uncomfortably honest about why we don't want to slow down, I believe it's because, on some level, we are terrified. If you pay close attention to yourself, what might you learn? There is a lot people are afraid to discover.
Our culture teaches us that solitude is a punishment. What if, instead, we started to treat it as a practice? It would behoove us to (re)build the capacity to be alone with ourselves without feeling as though we need instant distraction. Instead of constantly looking outside and listening to someone else, dare to get reacquainted with yourself. Be intentional about making time for you and you alone. Schedule and defend it (if you don't, it will be stolen). It would do you good to remove the dopaminergic talons of your phone. If the thought of spending an hour without your small buzzing screen sends your anxiety soaring, I challenge you to do it for a day. Wander around in nature. Look into the sun. Living for a bit in quiet margin will likely be an unnerving relief. Try it. It just may turn out that what initially sounds as appealing as solitary confinement is actually quite freeing.
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