Health Society

The Virtues of Isolation

In the ’80s, the Italian journalist and author Tiziano Terzani, after many years of reporting across Asia, holed himself up in a cabin in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. “For a month I had no one to talk to except my dog Baoli,” he wrote in his travelogue A Fortune Teller Told Me. Terzani passed the time with books, observing nature, “listening to the winds in the trees, watching butterflies, enjoying silence.” For the first time in a long while he felt free from the incessant anxieties of daily life: “At last I had time to have time.”

But Terzani’s embrace of seclusion was relatively unusual: Humans have long stigmatized solitude. It has been considered an inconvenience, something to avoid, a punishment, a realm of loners. Science has often aligned it with negative outcomes. Freund, who linked solitude with anxiety, noted that, “in children the first phobias relating to situations are those of darkness and solitude.” John Cacioppo, a modern social neuroscientist who has extensively studied loneliness—what he calls “chronic perceived isolation”—contends that, beyond damaging our thinking powers, isolation can even harm our physical health. But increasingly scientists are approaching solitude as something that, when pursued by choice, can prove therapeutic.

This is especially true in times of personal turbulence, when the instinct is often for people to reach outside of themselves for support. “When people are experiencing crisis it’s not always just about you: It’s about how you are in society,” explains Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University who has studied solitude. “When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”

In other words, when people remove themselves from the social context of their lives, they are better able to see how they’re shaped by that context. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and writer who spent years alone, held a similar notion. “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom,” he writes in Thoughts in Solitude.

Much of this self-reconfiguring happens through what Fong calls “existentializing moments,” mental flickers of clarity which can occur during inward-focused solitude. Fong developed this idea from the late German-American sociologist Kurt Wolff’s “surrender and catch” theory of personal epiphany. “When you have these moments, don’t fight it. Accept it for what it is. Let it emerge calmly and truthfully and don’t resist it,” Fong says. “Your alone time should not be something that you’re afraid of.”

Yet, at the same time, it is not only about being alone. “It’s a deeper internal process,” notes Matthew Bowker, a psychoanalytic political theorist at Medaille College who has researched solitude. Productive solitude requires internal exploration, a kind of labor which can be uncomfortable, even excruciating. “It might take a little bit of work before it turns into a pleasant experience. But once it does it becomes maybe the most important relationship anybody ever has, the relationship you have with yourself.”

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June 2017
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