I often spend at least twelve hours a day being very much in the presence of others. Caring for patients, discussing cases with attending doctors, interacting with nurses and social workers, and then going back to talk with patients again, my day is spent in a series of often intense human interactions. Add to the human commotion the beeping hospital monitors, ringing phones, and perpetual overhead announcements that another ambulance has arrived or that there is a code blue on the fifth floor and it can be difficult to hear myself think.
But then I leave. When I arrive home, there is only my dog to greet me. I grab a leash and my German shepherd and I head out into the empty and amazingly quiet two a.m. Seattle streets. Lost each in our own thoughts, he chases the scent of a squirrel while I both mull over the day’s events and also try to forget about them. We walk silently.
While I find great solace in being alone, there is also a degree of guilt as well as uncertainty: Should I be taking this time just for myself? That is exactly what Sara Maitland gets at in her latest book, How to Be Alone.
Whether you treasure your solitude, feel guilty about your alone time, or feel you need to justify your time away from the surge of humanity, you, too, might enjoy Maitland. She looks historically at how we perceive those who are alone — either by choice or by chance — and weaves in her own story of solitude-seeking.
Maitland moved from the connection of coupledom to single life out on the Scottish moor. It was a huge change. And while falling in love again — this time with silence — she found her new life was not easily accepted, even by those in her family.
When discussing her mother’s take on her new life, Maitland notes, “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.”
Reflecting on her mother’s attitude in the larger cultural context, Maitland highlights our cultural ambivalence toward being alone. On the one hand, we support solitude in the pursuit of great feats — sailing around the world, for instance, or writing the next great American novel — but choose this as a general lifestyle? Then you’re likely to be labeled a crazy cat lady.
(There is a reason I have always owned dogs. Have you ever heard of a crazy dog lady? I didn’t think so.)
Maitland points out that while many things are off limits at a polite dinner party, asking why someone is still single is not. She quotes Jim Friel from the BBC, who remarks that it is not uncommon for a coupled person to ask him why he does not have a partner. And yet, he writes, “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 question would be thought rude, intrusive…”
All right, so maybe that is a little rude, but you can appreciate the sentiment. We feel a certain degree of discomfort around those who are alone, perhaps because many of us fear facing solitude ourselves. Yet it can be an unavoidable state at times. And so, Maitland offers a series of exercises and ideas for “overturning negative views of solitude and developing a positive sense of aloneness and a true capacity to enjoy it.”
She starts by encouraging us to confront the fear of being alone. This can be done through little steps, she shows, like taking a long bath, turning off your cell phone, or traveling without a companion.
Maitland describes how she herself eased into solitude. First came the dissolution of her marriage. Then came the discovery that, rather than being miserable and having yet another thing to blame her husband for, she was more relaxed and more energetic — and found that her longstanding depression was lifting.
The book ends with a tribute to the joys of being alone. Whether it be a connection with one’s self, with nature, or with a higher power, solo pursuits can enhance our experience. And going it alone bolsters our creativity, too. Maitland writes that “great art, great original thinking, any creative work, needs to be done in some degree of solitude.”
If you already take advantage of opportunities to be alone, this book will feel like a comfortable sweater. I found myself frequently thinking Yes, an excellent point, and enjoying Maitland’s various historical references. If instead you have not yet discovered the joys of solitude, you may want to give this book a try.
How to Be Alone
Picador, September 2014
Paperback, 240 pages