Western culture does not foster the idea of someone being alone with their thoughts. Everywhere we turn there is one form of stimulation or another, both legal and illegal, which entices us and encourages us not to be reflexive. This is most unfortunate. One of the things which separate us from other animals is our ability to reflect upon our thoughts and ask such questions as “Why am I here?” and “What is give greater meaning to my life?” If we do not take the time to reflect upon such questions throughout our lives we might as well be a dog.
This need for constant stimulation is very prevalent in Western society, but is not always found in other cultures around the world. For example, Russian society has always had a more reflexive mindset. This may be changing now that Western culture has made its way into Russia and that part of the world. Hopefully, it will continue to endure into the next generation.
In an interview, Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky [Андрей Арсеньевич Тарковский] (1932-1986) was asked what message he would like to leave for young people. Tarkovsky said that they should learn to love solitude and to be able to be alone with themselves. He believed that young people were carrying out noisy and aggressive actions in an effort not to be alone. He felt that as individual must learn to be on his own as a child. This is not the same as being alone. He is referring to the idea of not becoming bored with oneself, which is sees as a very dangerous symptom, almost a disease. 1
The insights of Andrei Tarkovsky are not unique. Over the past several months I have had an opportunity to assist many people from the former Soviet Union to learn English and Tarkovsky’s insights are quite common among many of them. I have had the good fortune to be able to speak with sixteen year olds in several of the former Soviet Republics, including Russia, who are extremely self-reflexive and deeply philosophical. While I am sure that I can find such young people in the West, they would be much rarer.
There is a great difference between being lonely and being alone. Many people are alone and lead happy lives. It may behoove us to study some of their traits, because many of us are likely to be alone at some point in our lives. Points to consider: our culture has a high divorce rate; statistics show that wives outlive husbands; and our society advocates self-sufficiency and independence.
Contrary to the opinion of many people, the elderly are not the loneliest among us. It is young people who are most lonely, and herein may lie some of the differences between being lonely and being alone.
Many elderly people have developed traits or habits that help them be comfortable with themselves alone. They have found ways to keep busy mentally. Many rely on good memories of a deceased spouse for comfort while relishing the peace and quiet of a household void of too much activity. They have reached the point where their status quo is calmness.
The young, however, are subject to a wide range of moods. They may be up one morning and down that evening or up and down several times in a given day. They are often bored and restless to the point of being unhappy for no clear reason. When they are not sought after and included in all activities of their peers, their self-esteem decreases.
Being alone can actually help to inspire creativity. Writing and painting are two means of artistic expression which require a certain amount of time alone with one’s thoughts. Spending time alone can help one to develop a creative outlet that they may never have realized that they possessed.
What is not being advocated is living in isolation. Human beings are social animals. We need contact with other people for our own mental well-being as well as giving us an opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings with others and perhaps gain a new perspective as a result of these interactions. If one spends all of his or her time alone it is possible to become deluded and there is a great possibility that such a person can become severely depressed.
This is not the same as having to be surrounded by noise and stimulation on a regular basis. Such constant stimulation has actually lead to a very limited attention span, a decreased interest in reading, and a desire to receive information in the form of thirty second “sound bites”. None of these things encourage the expansion of the human mind. In fact, they are forms of depravation. The world of classic literature is lost when people do not read and it is difficult to have an intelligent discussion about important issues when one relies solely upon “sound bites” since they offer no in-depth insight into the issue at hand, but are designed to be almost a form of entertain in themselves.
In Western society the idea of silence scares many people. It is almost impossible to drive any distance without having to turn on the car stereo. When we are home, it is almost essential that either the television or internet is functioning lest there be silence. There is nothing to fear from silence. Reading a classic novel is not something which should be feared or avoided at all cost, but something to be relished. Silence can help one to use their imagination which also aids in creativity.
The fact is that everyone needs time to be alone. They need time to reflect upon their life and see if what they are engaged in is actually benefiting or hurting them. This is a basic human need; however, it is become lost because of our societal emphasis on constant stimulation. Periodic stimulation is not a bad thing, but constant stimulation is not benefiting us. In fact, it is actually making us numb. How much stimulation can one person actually deal with? Are we really such shallow and superficial creatures that if we experience silence for a reasonable length of time that we will go insane? Does constantly engaging in some activity, in order to avoid being alone, actually make us more human?
If one engages in the practice of being alone, from time to time, he or she might find that they actually benefit from it. It can be both mentally and spiritually renewing. This is one of the reasons that many religions encourage their members to go on retreat.
Part of what it means to be human is that we have the ability to engage in contemplation. This cannot be done in an atmosphere of constant stimulation. One needs to be alone and have time to reflect. While this thought may be scary for some, the idea that, by not doing, we are becoming less human should be even scarier.
1) “Interview with Andrei Tarkovsky, part 2” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6oRTH659KBA&NR=1
2) “Being Alone without Being Lonely” by Ben Martin, Psych. D. http://psychcentral.com/lib/2006/being-alone-without-being-lonely/