Monday, May 30, 2011
Solitude and Isolation by Jennifer Hubbard
Solitude and isolation; aloneness and loneliness. These are issues that most writers must grapple with at some point in their careers, since writing is usually practiced in solitude. Even the writer who works in a busy cafe or a crowded household has to achieve a bubble of quiet within that space, to enable her to listen to the inner voice.
At first glance, these would appear to be non-issues for the introverted writer, who thrives in solitude. Yet introverts need human connection as well. We are not immune from loneliness; we are not invulnerable to solitude’s darker twin, isolation.
While solitude can be seen as the joyful state of being alone and liking it, isolation is another brand of aloneness. I can think of two kinds of isolation: the first, an aloneness imposed against our will, deprived of company by death or desertion, by the choices of others or by chance and circumstance. Most people recognize this form of isolation: we may have encountered it as “fear of abandonment” or “homesickness” or “mourning” or “the empty nest.” But there is also self-imposed isolation. At its most extreme, we might call this a social phobia. It’s the voice that whispers in our head that it’s just easier to be alone, that people are too unpredictable, relationships are too taxing. We are better off without others. We can go it alone. We don’t have to let anyone else in.
The difference between solitude and isolation is not a matter of quantity: people can be quite happy spending large amounts of time alone, or having a small circle of intimate friends. Rather, it’s a matter of quality. Solitude is an aloneness full of freedom, serenity, a sense of connecting with oneself. It may be joyful or peaceful, stimulating or relaxing. Even some unhappiness expressed in solitude may be healing: we may need time alone to work through our anger at another person, to mourn a loss, to have a good cry. This is still solitude, marked by feeling connected with the inner self.
Isolation, on the other hand, is marked by uneasiness. It may be characterized by numbness, a disconnection with oneself. Addictions often thrive in isolation: compulsive overeating, binge drinking. The aloneness is less a matter of choice than the product of an insidious whisper in the brain: Nobody wants to hear from me. I’m safer alone anyway.
In our society, with its emphasis on social relationships and extroversion, introverts are often assumed to be isolated. But most of the time, our solitude is just our battery-recharging time, the happy and fruitful aloneness we need. Our relationships are characterized more by depth than volume. When disconnection and loneliness arise—which can happen to anyone, introvert or extrovert—it’s important to reach out to those we trust, to break the grip of isolation.
All of us must find the balance that works for ourselves: time alone and time spent with others; time looking inward and time looking outward.
For more discussion of this issue, see Caroline Knapp’s essay, “Time Alone: Navigating the Line Between Solitude and Isolation,” in the collection The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays, Counterpoint Press, 2004.
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Jennifer Hubbard is the author of THE SECRET YEAR and longtime Shrinking Violet. She also has impeccable timing. Thank you, Jenn!