Solitude is painful when one is young but delightful when one is more mature.
— Albert Einstein
Remember the itchy feeling solitude brought on when you were young? I do. Even before the manic stimulation of the digital feed, being a kid or a teenager and meeting solitude, even for a few moments, was like meeting an old person: to be avoided.
That was because we had uncontainable energy and our minds had yet to become our playgrounds. Playgrounds were our playgrounds. And basketball courts. And our friends, especially those of the opposite sex as we got older. Why sit alone when such joys awaited?
Now it’s different. Einstein was right. Solitude to the un-anxious mature person is another sort of playground. Things get done in the head. We reflect. We ponder. We ruminate. Ideas arise. Puzzles come together. Curiosities are satisfied. Thorny anxieties can be escorted from the room.
And because contemplation is meditative, time has been elongated. As I see it, that’s one of our jobs at this stage of life: to stretch the time we have left, which, miraculously, could be decades.
Besides, if a goal in retirement is to be the person you’ve always wanted to be, to catch up to that ideal at last, it won't be easy to improve your emotional self without spending time with yourself, in quiet, in contemplation, in conversation with yourself. That’s solitude put to fine use.
Then there’s loneliness. I touched on it recently, advocating the determined cultivation of friendships as self-defence against loneliness, which can actually be injurious when it goes on too long. Loneliness is a growing social problem, and a modern one, or at least an age-old human malady exacerbated by modern life because technology isolates us, and individualism is, sadly, an ethos of today’s Western world.
Solitude is far more difficult when you are lonely. Productive solitude depends on “being in a good place.” Alone and sad is not a good place. Loneliness begets depression. Depression jars consciousness, rupturing the links and smothering sparks of creativity with numbing jabs of despondency and hopelessness.
The message? Solitude, for the emotionally fit, is often an underrated pleasure worth pursuing — possibly even a skill to develop. We can be skilled meditators. Why not skilled practitioners of productive solitude?
It might even be a tool for warding off its sad sister.