The fear of finding oneself alone- that is what they suffer from – and so they don’t find themselves at all.” (Andre Gide)
Human beings are social by nature and unfit to endure extreme cases of isolation. If we are alone for too long, our mental faculties can degrade leading to states of insanity and deep despair. The use of solitary confinement and exile are practices’ with ancient roots. Indicating that people have long understood just how deeply the fear of isolation runs through our psyche.
However, in the modern day, our fears are not restricted to the extreme, extreme forms of isolation instead many of us fear to be alone for an extended period of time.
Why is isolation so detrimental to our relationships with others? Is there not solace in solitude?
Many great pontificators have suggested that the fear of solitude is actually the fear of oneself. In our standard daily routines, our social persona comes to the fore, and frightening thoughts and emotions are pushed outside of our awareness but when we are away from the restricting confines of others these darker aspects of ourselves tend to rise to the surface and make their presence known.
“It is what one takes into solitude that grows there, the beast within included.” ( Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathusra )
Hence, there is a danger in spending a significant amount of time isolated from others, as there will come a time when broken down by the beast within; solitude will weigh us down and become a great curse. However, there are some who can endure this crisis of isolation and through a heroic effort, tame and integrate the darkness within, but most would be destroyed by such a confrontation, which is why Nietzche thought:
“..many should be dissuaded from solitude.” ( Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra )
The default response for those for whom solitariness is too heavyweight to bear is to cling to others to ensure they never feel alone.
” One man runs to his neighbour because he is looking for himself, and another because he wants to lose himself. Your bad love of yourselves makes solutude a prision to you.” ( Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra )
Those who lose themselves in others may be saved from their solitude, but they always turn out to be crippled versions of the person they could have become. For us to actualize our potential, we need to fulfill what the psychologist, Abraham Maslow called our “meta needs or (“higher needs”), which include the drive for truth, beauty, and goodness.
These needs as Ernest Becker noted in his book, The Denial of Death, cannot be entirely fulfilled by other people.
” It is impossible to get glood from a stone , to get spirituality from a physcial being.” ( Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death )
Any attempt to fulfill the totality of our meta needs through an intimate relationship will succeed in a god-like idealization of the partner and a result of a slavish dependence on them for our self-worth and identity.
” If the partner becomes God they can just as easily become the Devil; the reason is not dar to seek.. If you find the ideal love and try to make it the sole judge of good and bad in yourself, the measure of your strivings, you become simply the reflex of another person. You lose yourself in the other, just as obegident children lose themselves in the family. No wonder that dependency, whether of the god or the slave in the relationship, carries with it so much inderlying resentiment.” ( Ernest Becker, Denial of Death)
To ensure we don’t, like many individual today, fall victim to dependence driven relationships we must develop what the twentieth-century psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott called “the capacity to be alone”. When the dear of solitude makes us dependent on others we become overly compliant out of a fear of abandonment and thus build up what Winnicott called, “a false self”. That is, our personality becomes a mere reflex of how we believe others want us to be.
It is in developing the capacity to be alone that the false self can be broken down thought Winnicott, rendering us to rediscover our true self or in other words, our authentic feelings and needs.
In the modern day most are oblivious to the benefits of solitude, instead many unknowingly adhere to what is called, object relations theory, which is based on two key assumptions. That the maturation of one’s personality can be facilitated through interpersonal relationships and that these relationships are the primary, if not sole, source of meaning in life.
In his influential work, Attachment and Loss, John Bowlby, an adherent of this view wrote:
” Intimate attachements to other human beings are tje hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or toddler or school schild but throughtout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old sage.” ( John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss )
Taken to their extreme, the assumptions held by object relations theorists imply that the individual’s life has no meaning apart from interpersonal relationships, thus overlooking the well-established fact that meaning can be found and personal growth simulated when we cultivate in solitude with some form of creative work that consumes our attention.
As the twentieth-century psychiatrists, Anothy Storr argued in his book, Solitude: A Return To The Self, that it is in the struggle to give form and order to an external creative work that we also, often without knowing it, are imposing form and order on our mind. Storr illustrates the point:
“..maturation and integration can take place within the isolated indivdual to a greater extent than I had allowed for..introverted creators are able to define identity and achieve self-relaization by self-reference, that is, by interacting with their work than than by interacting with other people.” ( Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return To The Self.
It is this ability to achieve self-realization by developing a relationship with our work that led the Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky to claim ” solitude for the mind to be as essential as food is for the body”.
In solitude, we can forge our character away from the often constricting external demands of others and maintain our independence in the relationships we do cultivate, thus ensuring we do not, like many today including myself at times, lose our identity in them. Yet as we learn to flourish in solitude we must not dismiss the dangers of it which Nietzsche spoke of. Dangers, which led Goethe to write:
“…there is nothing more dangerous than solitude.” ( Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther)
We can increase our capacity to deal with these dangers, however, if we consider the possibility that the benefits of solitude are embedded in its dangers; meaning that is is only by voluntarily seeking out solitude and confronting the darkness within that we can extract the benefits of being alone and perhaps eventually attain the rare self-confidence of one who has gained sovereignty over himself.
As the poet, Ranier Maria Rilke wrote:
“…you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it… We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certaony that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.” ( Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter to a Young Poet )
- R.W.N II