I was initially going to title this article “The Benefits of Solitude,” but I decided against unnecessary sugarcoating. There are a plethora of pieces out there which discuss the benefits of spending time with yourself, of mindfulness and meditation, of being alone for a period of time.
But today I want to talk about being lonely. It’s a sentiment we all feel at times, and it is often shunned as being detrimental, counterproductive, and unhealthy. A couple examples of this:
- An old roommate of mine recently moved to a new city for work. I was talking with him beforehand and asked why he didn’t move earlier so that he could onboard in person, and he responded, “All my friends are moving in or after August, so I would have gotten lonely.” I countered with the point that being by yourself at times can be healthy, to which he rebutted, “I can enjoy time by myself, that’s not the issue. But doing that for multiple weeks makes me sad.”
- A week ago, I was getting a ride home from a friend. I recently moved into a new apartment, and she indicated that a local family often invited new community members over for dinner, especially those who were alone. When I joked, “What if I like being alone?” she quickly (and rather assertively) responded, “No, you don’t.”
The idea that loneliness is exclusively bad dominates friendly conversation — but what if we are too quick to shun something that has benefits? To be clear, I am not talking about extremely long periods of time (think many months) when you feel alone, depressed, or forgotten. If this is the case, I would encourage you to go out and seek professional help, as it could be indicative of a larger issue.
Here, I am talking about the general feeling of loneliness we all feel every once in a while, especially when it is coupled with being physically alone. We are so quick to turn away from it (case in point: Bullet 1 above), but should we be?
My Personal Take
Leading up to the start of my PhD program, I am spending 2–3 weeks lonely. This does not mean I literally see no one, hence why I did not use the word “alone.” I’ve gone to campus a few times, and visited here and there with a couple friends. However, it does mean that by and large, I am spending most of my time in solitary introspection.
I often stay in my apartment all day, cooking various meals to background music. I’ll run to the gym alone and pick up some groceries on the scenic walk back. I’ll people watch as I sit on the bus in silence. And at night, I’ll tuck myself into bed and drift off to sleep. Merriam-Webster defines lonely as “being without company.” Currently, I embody that feeling in every way possible, during each waking moment.
And honestly, it is really, really nice.
As I sit at my desk right now, writing to the delicate tuk-tuk-tuk of the rain outside, I am forced to reflect on the state of my being more deeply than I ever have before. Uninterrupted by others and with nothing better to do, I have no choice but to remember all the people I have hurt, all the mistakes I have made, all the flaws I still possess.
Conversely, I also ponder how best to make amends, how to correct those errors, how to improve going forward. Because there is no one physically here to bounce my thoughts off, I’ve instead begun to look inward. In doing so, I’ve felt quite a bit of pain — but also a great deal of peace.
I observe my breath more clearly than I ever did before. I hardly speak, and because of that I’m hearing thoughts that I didn’t even know existed. I’m being forced to see life from a different angle, simultaneously realizing that I am a tiny speck in the universe, but not a meaningless one.
As I look in the mirror every night, my chocolate-brown eyes look back at me with a deep mixture of confusion and compassion. I once wrote about my reflection staring me into submission and inadequacy, but that is not what I feel today. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Just me and my reflection, intensely looking into each other’s eyes. It insists that I am good enough. It implores me to trust myself. To keep going. It stares me into acceptance, encouraging me to accept my own humanity. Encouraging me to grow, to learn, until I can scarcely believe the loving expression staring back at me is my own.
All of that, just from being lonely.
Especially if you find yourself scared of loneliness, I would urge you to give it a proper try. Yes, it is hard, and yes, it can be painful, but the benefits can far outweigh the costs.
In being lonely, we naturally begin to self-reflect in ways we didn’t even know possible. If nothing else, it helps us understand ourselves better. Our hopes, our dreams, our desires. It gives us an opportunity to understand our past mistakes and rectify them as we move into the future, and thus lays the foundations for a better, more satisfying life.
I’ll end on a quote, because it sums it up better than I ever could. My fellow Avatar: The Last Airbender fans out there will be quick to recognize Iroh’s memorable question to Zuko at the end of Season 2:
“I’m begging you, Prince Zuko! It’s time for you to look inward, and begin asking yourself the big questions.
Who are you, and what do you want?”
Being lonely might just give you the chance to find out.