In praise of loneliness.
Too much has been written by people much smarter than me about loneliness and its terrible effects for me to offer a meaningful opinion which adds new dimension to an already complex topic as we see it today.
Perhaps however I can propose a different point of view. A lonely point of view. One which is built from personal experience and asks a question around embracing something we’re told is scary and turning it to our advantage.
Personally, loneliness has created opportunity and obstacles. It’s been an experience I seek and strive towards then I allergically reject. Lurching back towards sociality and connection. I find it useful and intimidating, calming and unsettling.
I left my home country seven years ago, on a whim with hopes of adventure and newness in a place I’d never been before, Australia. I found myself 10,000 miles from home and all its associated comforts. Comforts of family, culture, understanding and shared experience. The adventure was short lived. My long-ish term relationship was crumbling and a job I’d taken wasn’t fulfilling me in the ways I hoped. Solid ground around me began to evaporate.
Loneliness can leave you feeling like you’re treading water, unsure which direction land lies, panic and fear combine into a toxic mix. Frantically you look to orientate yourself.
I’ve always struggled with interpersonal connection, I like to be alone, given time to think and process, too much sociality chokes me. Simultaneously I dread being left behind, peering in from the outside, wondering what if? Solitude energises me then poisons me, leaving me adrift and restless.
I found relationships, passions and purpose which have dramatically altered the course of my life in minor and major ways. These experiences may not have come to me or I to them, if I’d not been at some point lonely.
Our deepest instinct compels us to be part of something, an identity, a family, a community. We seek bonds and common ground with those around us and those apart from us. This steadies and reassures us that we’re ok and we’re in it together. At the same, we desire individual definition, and want to avoid being absorbed into a homogeneous bloc.
Loneliness can be scary, it eats and erodes the shared, cleaving us off like an iceberg adrift in warming seas. Melting, losing yourself to it. To be apart is to be a problem. It asks hard questions, and leaves pregnant pauses only we can fill. As I’ve come to experience loneliness can also empower and excite, it’s where newness resides, waiting patiently to be brought into the light, given life.
Loneliness can also be invigorating and restorative. I’ve been wondering how I can harness what I know to be useful, exploring the upside and managing the down. Mithridatism is the practice and belief that we can build immunity to what harms us by ingesting or experiencing small amounts of it. Named for an ancient ruler who believed small, regular doses of poison would insulate him from attempts on his life from enemies.
Could small, purposeful doses of loneliness help us build a more rounded and resilient self? Could time away from others, from distractions, from noise help us listen to our own thoughts and feelings? To weigh and balance them, understand them better outside of the rules and expectations of social groups.
I surf badly. Passionate but not proficient. And whilst you’ll never see me on the WSL I know that an early morning float on my own is time never wasted. The chance to sit and assess your own self, let the mind wander and pick apart the knots it accrues through our busy days. Loneliness creates time for reflection and self-assessment, comfortable in the knowledge that there’s a shoreline to swim back to.
The older I get the more I’ve appreciated how my creativity requires space and distance. Time to let thoughts rise and to sift the diamonds from the dirt. So much of what we see in design is referential, understood and appreciated by its proximity and association to something which went before. Mood boards, Pinterest collections and references encourage us to look back at where we’ve been. Crafting ideas and outcomes which live far too close to what we’ve seen before rather than seek truly unoccupied ground, a lonely space for a new thought.
Could we create space for loneliness to feel purposeful? To be more Mithridatic, dosing ourselves slowly with what we’re taught is poisonous. Get comfortable being away from the crowd, the community and the chatter that comes with it. Embrace the nervousness of seeking a lonely thought, an idea, an experience or memory.
We need balance, to feel the benefit of loneliness we need to know the warmth of connection and community and all the security it brings. Perhaps with this we can confidently take a journey to somewhere lonely safe in the knowledge that we can wade back into the shallows and join in again should we please.