How to Be Alone
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How to Be Alone

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by Sara Maitland

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Our fast-paced society does not approve of solitude; being alone is antisocial and some even find it sinister. Why is this so when autonomy, personal freedom, and individualism are more highly prized than ever before? In How to Be Alone, Sara Maitland

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Our fast-paced society does not approve of solitude; being alone is antisocial and some even find it sinister. Why is this so when autonomy, personal freedom, and individualism are more highly prized than ever before? In How to Be Alone, Sara Maitland answers this question by exploring changing attitudes throughout history. Offering experiments and strategies for overturning our fear of solitude, she helps us practice it without anxiety and encourages us to see the benefits of spending time by ourselves. By indulging in the experience of being alone, we can be inspired to find our own rewards and ultimately lead more enriched, fuller lives.

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How To Be Alone

By Sara Maitland


Copyright © 2014 Sara Maitland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-05903-1


Sad, Mad and Bad

There is a problem, a serious cultural problem, about solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being. In the first place, and rather urgently, the question needs to be asked. And then – possibly, tentatively, over a longer period of time – we need to try and answer it.

The question itself is a little slippery – any question to which no one quite knows the answer is necessarily slippery. But I think, inasmuch as it can be pinned down, it looks something like this:

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

Think about it for a moment. It is truly very odd.

We apparently believe that we own our own bodies as possessions and should be allowed to do with them more or less anything we choose, from euthanasia to a boob job, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions.

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops 'eccentric' habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal 'voice' and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is 'sad, mad or bad'. Or all three at once.

In 1980, US census figures showed 6 per cent of men over forty never married; now 16 per cent are in that position ... 'male spinsters' – a moniker that implies at best that these men have 'issues' and at worst that they are sociopaths.

One fears for these men, just as society has traditionally feared for the single woman. They cannot see how lonely they will be. But in time to ease my anxiety, a British friend came through town ... 'I want to get married,' he said. Finally. A worthwhile man.

(Vicky Ward, London Evening Standard, 2008)

In the Middle Ages the word 'spinster' was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well: a woman who could spin well was financially self-sufficient – it was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation. Now it is an insult, because we fear 'for' such women – and now men as well – who are probably 'sociopaths'.

Being single, being alone – together with smoking – is one of the few things that complete strangers feel free to comment on rudely: it is so dreadful a state (and probably, like smoking, your own fault) that the normal social requirements of manners and tolerance are superseded.

No one is supposed to be single.

In the course of my life, I have loved and lost and sometimes won, and always strangers have been kind. But I have, it appears, been set on a life of single blessedness.

I haven't minded enough. But now I kind of do. Take dinner parties. There comes a moment, and that question: 'Why don't you have a partner?'

It is usually asked by one of a couple, with always a swivel of the eye to his or her other half, so really two people are asking this question.

And I struggle to answer: 'I have never found the right person ... I am a sad and sorry manchild ... I am incapable of love ... I am a deviant, and prefer giraffes.'

Any answer will fail to satisfy. The questioner expects no happy answer. I am only covering up my bone-deep, life-corroding loneliness. The questioners know this, and the insight they believe it affords comforts them. They are safe.

They look down from the high castle of coupledom, protected from such a fate. But if I were to ask: 'Why have you settled for him? Why are you stuck with her? Were you so afraid of being alone?' such questions would be thought rude, intrusive ...

Single people can also feel this way about other single people, and about themselves. You see, no one is supposed to be single. If we are, we must account for our deficiencies.

(Jim Friel, BBC online magazine, November 2012)

In both these examples it is clear that thinking the single person 'sad' is not enough for society. Normally we are delicate, even over-delicate, about mentioning things that we think are sad. We do not allow ourselves to comment at all on many sad events. Mostly we go to great lengths to avoid talking about death, childlessness, deformity and terminal illness. It would not be acceptable to ask someone at a dinner party why they were disabled or scarred. It is conceivable, I suppose, that a person happy in their own coupled relationship really has so little imagination that they think anyone who is alone must be suffering tragically. But it is more complicated than that: Vicky Ward's tone is not simply compassionate. Her 'fears for these men' might at first glance seem caring and kind, but she disassociates herself from her own concern: she does not fear herself, 'one fears for them'. Her superficial sympathy quickly slips into judgement: a 'worthwhile' man will be looking for marriage; if someone is not, then they have mental-health 'issues' and are very possibly 'sociopaths'.

Here is a list of the traits of a sociopath, based on the psychopathy checklists of H. Cleckley and R. Hare:

Glibness and Superficial Charm
Manipulative and Cunning
Grandiose Sense of Self
Pathological Lying
Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt
Shallow Emotions; Incapable of real human attachment to another
Incapacity for Love
Need for Stimulation
Callousness/Lack of Empathy
Poor Behavioural Controls/Impulsive Nature
Early Behaviour Problems/Juvenile Delinquency
Promiscuous Sexual Behaviour
Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle
Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility

Does Vicky Ward honestly believe that every uncoupled man over thirty-five is suffering from this serious mental illness? It seems that she does.

Why? Could it be that she is frightened? In her article she comments that, in New York, where she is based, there is an excessive number of single women to men, so if she feels that a committed partner is necessary to a woman's sense of well-being then she might well feel threatened by men who want something different. Projecting psychopathology onto people who do not agree with you, especially about values, is a very old strategy.

'They are sad and therefore they are mad' is a good cover for fear. There is an alternative, though: 'They are not sad and therefore they are bad.' My mother was widowed shortly after she turned sixty. She lived alone for the remaining twenty-five years of her life. I do not think she was ever reconciled to her single status. She was very much loved by a great many, often rather unexpected, people. But I think she felt profoundly lonely after my father died, and she could not bear the fact that I was enjoying solitude. I had abandoned marriage, in her view, and was now happy as a pig in clover. It appalled her – and she launched a part-time but sustained attack on my moral status: I was selfish.

It was 'selfish' to live on my own and enjoy it.

Interestingly, this is a very old charge. In the fourth century AD, when enthusiastic young Christians were leaving Alexandria in droves to become hermits in the Egyptian desert, their Bishop Basil, infuriated, demanded of one of them, 'And whose feet will you wash in the desert?' The implication was that in seeking their own salvation out with the community, they were neither spreading the faith nor ministering to the poor; they were being selfish. This is a theme that has cropped up repeatedly ever since, particularly in the eighteenth century, but it has a new edge in contemporary society, because we do not have the same high ethic of 'civil' or public duty. We are supposed now to seek our own fulfilment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness – but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic. I write a monthly column for The Tablet (a Catholic weekly magazine) partly about living on my own. One month I wrote about the way a conflict of duties can arise: how 'charitable' is the would-be hermit meant to be about the needs and demands of her friends? One might anticipate that a broadly Catholic readership would be more sympathetic to the solitary life because it has such a long (and respected) tradition behind it. But I got some poisonous letters, including one from someone who had never met me, but who nonetheless felt free to pen a long vitriolic note which said, among other things:

Given that you are obviously a person without natural affections and a grudging attitude towards others it is probably good for the rest of us that you should withdraw into your own egocentric and selfish little world; but you should at least be honest about it.

And yet it is not clear why it is so morally reprehensible to choose to live alone. It seems at first sight a great deal less offensive than the blatant aggression which the choice seems to provoke in so many people. It is very hard to pin down exactly what people mean by the various charges they make, probably because they do not know themselves. For example, the 'sad' charge is irrefutable – not because it is true but because it is always based on the assumption that the person announcing that you are, in fact, deeply unhappy has some insider knowledge of your emotional state greater than your own. If you say, 'Well, no actually; I am very happy', the denial is held to prove the case. Recently someone trying to condole with me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy, 'You may think you are.' But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it – I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool's paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth. My happiness cannot, by the very nature of happiness, be something I think I feel but don't really feel. There is no possible response that does not descend almost immediately to the school-playground level of 'Did, didn't; did, didn't.'

But the charges of being mad or bad have more arguability.

However, before we look at these arguments, the first thing to establish is how much solitude the critics of the practice consider 'too much'. At what point do we feel that someone is developing into a dangerous lunatic or a wicked sinner? Because clearly there is a difference between someone who prefers to bath alone and someone who goes off to live on an uninhabited island which can only be reached during the spring tides; between someone who tells a friend on the telephone that they think they'll give tonight's group get-together a miss because they fancy an evening to themselves, and someone who cancels all social engagements for the next four months in order to stay in alone. Age and circumstance are, or can be, factors, and so is what someone is doing in their solitude: there is a difference between a teenager who has not left their bedroom for four months and an adult who decides to walk the whole Pennine Way alone for their holiday. If you are writing great books or accomplishing notable feats, we are more likely to admire than criticize your 'bravery' and 'commitment'. Most of us did not find Ellen MacArthur sad, mad or bad when she broke the single-handed sailing circumnavigation record in 2005, even though it meant being entirely alone for 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds.

There are no statistics for this, but my impression is that we do not mind anyone being alone for one-off occasions – particularly if they are demonstrably sociable the rest of the time – or for a distinct and interesting purpose; what seems to bother us are those individuals who make solitude a significant part of their life and their ideal of happiness.

It is all relative anyway. I live a solitary life, but the postman comes most days. Neil, the cheerful young farmer who works the sheep on my hill, roars by on his quad bike at least three or four days a week, passing with a cheerful wave. I have a phone; I go to church every Sunday. I have friends and children and sometimes they even come and visit me. Small rural communities are inevitably, oddly, social – I know the names and something of the circumstances of every single person who lives within five miles of me. (There is nothing in the world more sociable than a single-track road with passing places.) And even if I lived in deeper solitude I would live with a web of social dependencies: I read books that are written by people; I buy food which is produced by people and sold to me by people; I flick on the light switch and a nationwide, highly technical, constantly maintained, laboriously manufactured grid delivers electricity and my lights come on. It would be both mad and bad not to acknowledge and give thanks for all this not-aloneness.

So it is useful to ask oneself how much solitude it takes to tip over into supposed madness or badness. It is certainly useful to ask those who are being critical or accusatory of anyone who seems to enjoy more aloneness than they themselves feel comfortable with. After all, Jim Friel in the earlier quote is at a dinner party, hardly an activity of the classic antisocial loner.

In his book Solitude, Philip Koch attempts to break down the accusations into something resembling logical and coherent arguments, so as to challenge them: he suggests that the critics of silence find the desire for it 'mad' (or tending towards madness) because:

Solitude is unnatural. Homo sapiens is genetically and evolutionarily a herd or pack animal. We all have a basic biosocial drive: 'sharing experience, close contiguity of comradeship and face-to-face cooperative effort have always been a fundamental and vital need of man (sic ) ... the individual of a gregarious species can never be truly independent and self-sufficient ... Natural selection has ensured that as an individual he must have an abiding sense of incompleteness.' People who do not share this 'force of phylic cohesion' are obviously either deviant or ill.

Solitude is pathological. Psychology, psychiatry and particularly psychoanalysis are all insistent that personal relationships, ideally both intimate and sexually fulfilled, are necessary to health and happiness. Freud originated this idea and it has been consistently maintained and developed by attachment theorists (like John Bowlby) and particularly object relation theorists (like Melanie Klein) – and is generally held and taught throughout the discipline. (This may also underpin the idea that you are not 'really' happy on your own. Since you need other people to be mentally well, then thinking you are happy alone is necessarily deluded.)

Solitude is dangerous (so enjoying it is masochistic). It is physically more dangerous, because if you have even quite a mild accident on your own there will be no one to rescue you; and it is psychically dangerous because you have no ordinary reality checks; no one will notice the early warning signs.

These three arguments do have a kind of coherence. They are based on assumptions that – were they correct for all people at all times – would indeed need to be answered. I personally think (and I'm not alone) that they are not correct in themselves and do not adequately allow for individual difference. I hope to demonstrate this as we go through the book.

The 'moral' arguments, however, at least as Koch defines them, are rather more absurd. This second group of objections to solitude tend to be exactly the opposite of the first group. Solitude is morally bad because:

Solitude is self-indulgent. The implication here is that it is hedonist, egotistic and seeking its own easy pleasure – that somehow life alone is automatically happier, easier, more fun and less nitty-gritty than serious social engagement, and that everyone in the pub is exercising, comparatively at least, noble self-discipline and fortitude, and spending twenty-six hours a day in the unselfish miserable labour of serving their neighbours' needs.


Excerpted from How To Be Alone by Sara Maitland. Copyright © 2014 Sara Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Sara Maitland is the British author of numerous works of fiction, including the Somerset Maugham Award–winning Daughter of Jerusalem, and several nonfiction books, including A Book of Silence. Born in 1950, she studied at Oxford University and lives in Galloway, Scotland.

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