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!


none said...

Oh my. A topic that is unfortunately very close to my heart. As an innie, I cherished my solitude. But then, the man of the house took a great job in a very small town and I learned first hand the difference between solitude and isolation.

As reluctant as I am to share too much personal information, I will say that I came pretty close to losing it, mentally. I began suffering from panic attacks, extreme worry, hypochondria (well, worse than what I already have) and I pretty much became scared of my own shadow. It was such a horrible place to be. It took me three years to find a job (this place is big on nepotism and I was (and still am) an outsider) and the volunteer work I did just wasn't doing the trick. I needed more.

I am happy to report that I've returned to my old normal self, mostly. I vowed that I would never, ever, ever allow myself to get into that situation again. The lessons I learned about myself were invaluable but I think I would rather've learned them another way.

Cynthia Lee said...

That balance is always shifting for me. Some days and weeks, I get enough solitude and others not nearly enough.

When there is no solitude to be found anywhere, I go for a long walk with my Ipod. I always feel better.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the insight. I think my longing to return to my solitude influences my attitude towards marketing.

T.S. Welti said...

This is something I struggle with. I love to be around people when I write, but I hate being interrupted. Right now I'm sitting on the sofa with my laptop in my lap and my daughter sitting next to me playing the Wii. This is how I usually write, whether it's a blog or a novel. Unfortunately, that means I have to come out of my writing bubble and answer the occasional question like "What's for dinner?" or "Did you just see that dunk?" The nerve of them, speaking to me while I'm clearly having a conversation with my muse.

Terri-Lynne said...

I'm not an introvert--far from it. I'm as extro-a-vert as one can be, yet I need my solitude. I love it. In solitude, I can create.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

L.E.: I'm glad you found your way out of the isolation!

Cynthia, T.S., and Terri-Lynne: It is so often a question of that elusive thing called balance!

Kay: I think it influences mine also. ;-)

R.L. LaFevers said...

L.E. - yet another reason to blog anonymously, no? Your story makes me very aware of how thin that line between isolation and solitude truly is, and how much of that is determined by whether or not we choose it.

Cynthia, I am becoming more and more convinced that there is just about nothing a good walk cannot cure.

LOL, Kay! I'm certain it does!

T.S., so interesting that you enjoy being around people when you're writing! I have had about zero luck with that. I am much too easily distracted by their conversations and dramas.

Terri-Lynne: Very cool to hear from an extrovert who also craves solitude! Good for us introverts to keep in mind.

And Jenn, thanks again so much for the terrific post!

Anonymous said...

I don't know why I'm always so surprised when someone knows exactly how I think. Most days,I enjoy my quiet, solitary life, but every once in a while, those "insidious whispers" kick in. Thanks for helping me realize that I'm not alone in that. It makes all the difference.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Shary: Yes, even we introverts need that connection, that knowledge we have things in common!

Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a great post: and thank you for the reminder to ignore those insidious whispers when they creep up and reach out to others.

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