The lost art of being alone

I was thinking of a painting I imagined myself this morning.

A water colour of a woman in a white bonnet on a hilltop with her back to the viewer. There are rolling hills all around dotted by white and yellow grass flowers as far as the eye can see. It’s springtime. There is no noise except that of the passing breeze. She is drinking in the surroundings alone, at peace.

Then I imagined another painting. A man in a dark room at a solid, brown, wooden table sitting by candlelight at work. Everything beyond that circle of light is dark, undefinable, unfathomable. Quiet. Night. Perhaps someone else is reading or writing a letter in another corner beyond the scope of the painting. Only his heavy breathing is audible. This man is secluded completely.

I see a third painting. Two people sitting in a sparsely furnished room engaged in deep discussion. They are looking intently at each other. You are aware that that is how they have been in conversation for the last half hour even though this painting has only captured a moment in their interaction. A tiny fraction of their concentration.

As a viewer, I feel like an intruder. I mustn’t be here watching them.

Then I think of a real-life scenario. What would it have been like if they were real people in my own place and time?

We were guilty of taking pictures too in the lovely Shenandoah Valley in Virginia this weekend
We were guilty of taking pictures too in the lovely Shenandoah Valley in Virginia this weekend

The hilltop of the first imagined painting is still there but a loud beep penetrates the thoughts of the woman in the white bonnet. A text has arrived that says “R U @ d top yet?” She is, after all, seventeen.

Or perhaps her eye keeps drifting to the phone in the expectation of a text which hasn’t arrived yet. “Your bill is paid in full with no outstanding balance.” Maybe the woman is thirty five. Who knows?

The man in the second painting in the lighted circle is sitting in the glow of a table lamp, not a candle. Outside the circle it’s still dark but the walls  are being illuminated by flashing blue and white lights that are moving continuously which gives the whole picture a surreal feel. He has fixed a TV on the wall himself. He is obliged to keep running this TV at night lest he miss out on a news item. Or worse still, lest he feel alone.

It is the same with the two people in discussion in the third painting in the sparsely furnished room. They are still rather proud that they don’t own much furniture. But they have gadgets with real or virtual keyboards on the table that demand their attention from time to time. I am no longer the only intruder here.

Why has being alone become more difficult than ever before? Even when there is no one around, even when we are completely alone, on a hilltop or in a cave or in a room, we are desperate to record the moment to show others who are not here. Take millions of pictures, tweet the moment, record our location or update our status. Why are we never just alone, in seclusion or in isolation just being there without feeling compelled to create a narrative of the moment? To record, to objectify, to display?

We had to take this picture inside the Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. Otherwise, how would I share the stalactites and their reflection in the water? (Photo credit MD)
We had to take this picture deep down inside the Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. Otherwise, how would I share the stalactites and their reflection in the water with you? (Photo credit MD)

We have to be the hero of our secluded state and for that we need other people who will read, view and somehow pass on what we have captured via likes and sharings and recommendations. We want to become the recorders of beauty, the conquerors of time, the hoarders of information and the best authority on the passing second in the temporal history of mankind.

And in that blip of a temporal history as compared to the life of the universe, it is no longer possible to be completely alone, to feel what is around us just for the sake of feeling it without a compulsion of a purpose.

To lose the past, to forget places, to bask in blissful oblivion of names, faces events–that is a luxury we don’t have anymore. There is no drifting apart of lives, no losing touch with relatives, no remembering a face but forgetting a name. There is a record of everything. We are now cursed with our crowded memories forever thanks to our social networks. Where is the chance to get lonely?

Despite living in such crowded spaces now, we have come to dread loneliness. To fear it almost. Being with people has penetrated the deepest recesses of our beings in a new way.

So company has to be cultivated very carefully–play dates for children have to be planned with precision, romantic dates have to be fixed like clockwork only on weekends. Preparations have to be done. Meetups found on the ‘net based on common activities necessitate developing an interesting hobby, social networking regulated by complex algorithms necessitate being constantly on guard to appease the shifting terrain of the logical gods.

This very old souvenir was on display at the entrance to the Luray Caverns. Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe people have been recording their experiences forever any way they could. Photo credit BW

We are not only getting rid of loneliness this way but becoming the vehicles of exorcizing other people’s solitude (which we think is loneliness) as well by making them visible through liking, recommending, sharing or just by being connected to them.  Even when we loudly proclaim, in our status updates that we are spending “me time,” “alone time,” or “quality time” (as though naming will give us some power over our lives) we are not alone. We are talking about ourselves incessantly, albeit to no one in particular, posting pictures, tweeting and updating our status hoping someone notices and comments back from the void.

But perhaps there are new ways of being alone in this crowd, ways a bit more nuanced and inventive than merely switching off our gadgets or losing them for a day?

Perhaps new generations will discover new ways of being alone is such a noisy world. After all, our seclusion survived the telephone, why not the internet?

©bottledworder, 2013.
Share to show you care but with attribution only for non-commercial purposes. No derivative works.

57 thoughts on “The lost art of being alone”

  1. Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I enjoyed this post on being alone. Every time I ride my horse on the trails or cruise the river in my boat, I am still amazed by the wonderfulness of true quiet and solitude. Just sign me, “often alone but never lonely” 🙂


  2. Heartfelt thanks for visiting Free Little Words and liking the post you read.
    I love solitude and silence. Silence is deafening or silence is golden. Depends on your perspective doesn’t it.


  3. This was a terrific post. I loved it and resonated with it. It’s true many people are afraid of being alone. I am not one of them. I love my solitude, and in today’s world, never get enough of it. Social media intrude, of course, but being unplugged is something I can still do regularly and enjoy more than all the time I spend either on line or “face to face”. But that’s me. Despite my be an introvert, and there being many extroverts ‘out there’ I believe that to some degree people’s inability to be alone with their thoughts is a social illness, an unfortunate by-product of our modern, media-saturated world. I don’t think this is a good thing. The upside, I suspect, is that having a vehicle for throwing your thoughts and feelings out there, without worrying about who is or is not listening, or who may or may not care, will perhaps teach us how to get more in touch with ourselves. Actually think things through for ourselves and decide what we believe. And this is a good thing. Maybe the connectedness of the internet is for the most part an illusion, and we are all, ultimately, alone.


  4. I was a 24 hour a day care giver for my father. He passed in January of this year. One of the things I missed the most during this time was time to be alone. I have always enjoyed solitude and missed it terribly. But now that he is gone I miss his presence tremendously.


  5. I was on the Singapore metro the other day ( I get around a bit in my job). Only myself and an older man were travelling without earphones in. We were lost in our thoughts. I felt that I was the one in solitude, in the comparative ‘silence’ of the carriage which everyone else was so desperately trying to block out. Moments of solitude can be found anywhere. I rather enjoyed mine. I think the old man did too.


  6. Perhaps a dose of compulsory Vipassana is in order. I like to give myself internet free days – usually on weekends – where I don’t go on to Facebook or check emails. I don’t have a smart phone. And when I’m travelling I avoid internet cafes. It takes mental fortitude to decide this for yourself. I wonder how the younger generation will fare. We older ones have the responsibility of the knowledge of how solitude feels, it’s perhaps our duty to teach it.


  7. We are talking about ourselves incessantly, albeit to no one in particular, posting pictures, tweeting and updating our status hoping someone notices and comments back from the void.

    This is priceless. I am in the process of slowly eliminating this aspect from my daily life, but it’s a struggle. Beautiful post.


    1. Hi Anna – I hear you … About “talking about ourselves incessantly ….. Hoping someone notices and comments back from the void.” I am guilty as charged. But what is the alternative when you have cupboards full of your writing and a room full of watercolours (both increasing in numbers daily) and no outlet for all that creativity?


      1. It’s a fine line; I’m surrounded by my daughter’s friends who incessantly post a lot of BS, just to add to the din. Yet, there are the still, soft voices providing beauty and meaning. I’d like to think what I write gives encouragement, but maybe I’m no different than those who blather for no other reason than just to be noticed; that is my struggle, trying to separate my own chaff from the wheat.

        Yet, art is different; I checked out your blog, what a beautiful watercolor! I felt like this post was a mirror to what I have been battling, public exposure vs private ramblings that may or may not have any bearing. And the funny thing is I still don’t know. I feel compelled to note ‘the work’, but why? Simply because I can, or is there a truly deeper purpose? I’m starting to suspect, just for myself, that I need to pull back. Although, ironically, I’m not doing a very good job of it. However, you should share those painting, those writings; I just wrote a post yesterday about the importance of the process, no matter what the outcome may be. And perhaps just noting that is in itself a reason to speak out. The opportunity exists, the creative spark glows. Where we fall on that line of being alone can only be decided by ourselves…


  8. I love finding places where it’s peaceful, where you can find that sense of solitude. Although, solitude is a tricky thing.. you need a healthy balance, otherwise you’ll just end up going crazy; although you could be equally frustrated by the splurge of noise that surrounds and embellishes us every single day. Pascal said: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ But then the basis for reality shows revolve around boxing people into confined spaces, and then watching them collide, and inevitably spiral downwards into a hedonistic, nihilistic nightmare – all for your viewing pleasure. I don’t know. I’m just rambling..


  9. Such a fabulous post. I think that some of us are afraid to be alone. If you are alone, you are forced into introspection, forced to entertain/stimulate/push yourself. Being alone is a stunning combination of outward rest and interior work, whereas I think everyday contemporary life is exactly the opposite: interior stagnation, exterior busy-ness.


  10. To ‘alysiablogs’ – Have you come across scornful people who say things like ‘you aren’t talking to anyone ‘face to face’ though?.

    I get told that REGULARLY, personally. 😦


  11. The personality disorder patient said to the schizophrenic, “would you mind going somewhere else? I am trying to have some me time.” Oh wait that was the same person talking to himself. hum
    BW-this is a truly insightful post. I worked for 30 plus years in the nursing field and had contact daily with folks in the hospital. Today I live a retired life and am happy being alone, but than I discovered blogging and here I am once again in the midst of people. WE were meant for relationship I truly believe that. God made Adam and saw he was not good alone so he made animals! That worked pretty good, but than he made another human and that worked even better!


    1. God made animals first, then made Adam. When Adam awakes, he’s told to name all the animals. God made Eve so Adam wouldn’t have be alone, unlike all the animals, who had partners already.

      Besides, animals can’t blog. 😉


  12. Oh, How I WISH that I could ‘lose the art’ myself. ;(. Mind you, the facts that I am a Wheelchair User, & the additional fact that I also live in a Disabled Care Home screw it up as well. ;(.

    Sadly, I think that I’m FANTASISING, never mind dreaming. :(.


  13. I am terrified of being alone. When I go out, I have to be with someone, I don’t like eating alone, but when I go home, I prefer to be alone at home. I’ve been told that most people are the other way around, they can go out and be with others, but when they go home, they need someone home so they feel less alone. I think reading this will challenge me to try to go to a coffeeshop alone and see what happens.


  14. What a wonderful, thought-provoking post. Thanks for this post and for your blog. There are many excellent blogs around but yours stands out from the crowd.


  15. I think a good book about the effect of this media narcissism is The Mirror Effect. It talks about how much we can redefine ourselves or create a pseudo-self through the media.

    It’s a big deal to learn to be alone. I have to fight the electronics so that my kids have some identity without them. Good post.


  16. Interesting observations and good points. Although I’m glad you took and shared photos with us, especially in the caverns. 🙂 I think the world is more isolated and lonely for individuals in some ways. It’s just less quiet. When you had to be in the moment where you were because you couldn’t travel vicariously electronically, the connections had with the few you knew were very deep. Now it’s light connection and on to the next, or like you say posting to who? Anyone? How lonely is that?
    Even so, people longed to go beyond now, evident by the fact they applied technology to far reaching and ever-faster communication. They used to tell stories and recite annals of local lore. They recorded it, they illustrated with painting and drawings. They created and read books….highly coveted. But there’s no doubt there’s more and faster and louder, and as much as I love nature, I am guilty of missing the moment so I can catch the image for my followers. I am living with the imagined communication later. I am taken with the image instead of the reality, and I who consider myself to love solitude. Hmmmm.


  17. I am always with my thoughts – never alone. That’s why I seem to remember so many little details of my life.

    But I see what you mean – we’re closer to the world outside our body, yet it seems further away sometimes.


  18. To my mind, solitude is occasionally necessary just to restore the spirit. Preferably, next to a lake, stream or waterfall.

    And thanks for the great pictures. The Shenandoah Valley and Luray Caverns are favorites of mine.


  19. I see what you’re saying. I value my alone time immensely. Its important to re-gather ones energy. However, I think its possible to maintain personal space while balancing the hoards of tweets, updates, and likes. I’d like to share something I read that might help people transmute any negative feelings on the matter:

    “…social networking has no borders. What happens when a young Israeli is talking to a young Iranian or a Palestinian about something they saw on their networking devices? The ideas fly across the borders in a way that they never could before. What happens to the intermingling of friends in a technical paradigm where hundreds talk to each other instantly, perhaps in a land where they never did before? The result? It will continue to create understanding about those they only have heard about or have been told about. Now they can see and hear them, and will know they all want the same thing! This is a new paradigm of communication, but more than that, it becomes the way of the future, where everyone can know everything accurately and almost instantly. It will be one of the catalysts for peace on the planet.”


  20. Very good points here, thoroughly enjoyed. We are all connected, after all, and I am guilty as well at the social media thing. Yet the one thing I crave the most is time alone (perhaps because I have so very little of it). Thanks for sharing.


  21. What a great post. I often catch myself trying so hard to capture the moment that I ultimately miss it. I remember a conference I attended in college where it fell on me to video record the whole event. When it was all finished I realized I had taped the whole thing, but not really experienced any of it. Now I’m a father and I have to constantly remind myself to just be with my child and enjoy the moment NOW, instead of trying to capture it on camera to enjoy someday.

    Maybe social media has made us conscious of our lives as something being constantly observed, so we rush to capture and comment and put the right image or spin on the moment before we ever experience anything at all. The whole thing is ironic in that I never feel more alone than when I’m Facebooking by myself, but not the least bit lonely when I’m in actual solitude, writing at my desk.

    Of course, our evasion of solitude could just be a simple as the fact that solitude and silence tends towards thought of death, and for those of us without a strong faith to fall back on, that quickly leads to despair. Better to be constantly stimulated than to contemplate the inevitable. Thanks for giving me so much to think about.


    1. How wonderfully put! I know–the content escapes us like when we sometimes read material aloud without understanding or remembering a word, especially in stressful situations. The moment escapes in the recording of it.


    2. “our evasion of solitude could just be a simple as the fact that solitude and silence tends towards thought of death”

      I think that’s dead on and very insightful, traigo12. So, what should we do about that? …. Talk about it! hahaha Write a post. Document the feeling. Let’s un-taboo death. Risk being unpopular for the sake of shining a light into our hush hush culture 🙂


      1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve experienced a number of painful losses in my lifetime and not only did I feel completely unprepared for the experience of death, but after the fact it was very hard to find anyone who would talk with me about it, or even listen without getting noticeably uncomfortable. I suppose that’s one reason I turned to writing in the first place.

        I read somewhere that what is most personal is most universal (just looked it up – that was Carl R. Rogers who said that). I think the fear of death is like that – we all feel it, we just don’t talk about it. But it leaves open the possibility that when we do find the courage to raise the subject, we can be fairly sure we’ll be understood by whomever is listening.

        On a personal note, to anyone reading this, if anyone you know loses a loved one, don’t ask if they’re “over it,” or “getting over it,” or “why aren’t they over it yet.” If you really loved someone, you don’t get over it. You learn to live with it. The whole idea of getting over a loss is just a convenient myth of a death-denying culture.


  22. Your post moved from beautiful, to sad, to true… to… well, maybe hopeful. You’re not alone with your insight, perhaps it’s that fluttering of butterfly wings. Something like that?


    1. Yes! It used to be that people would worry about their pictures on the internet. Now, people have stopped worrying about pictures altogether ’cause there are so many of them. No one bothers about that kind of privacy much anymore. It’s like you can’t walk on the road without being seen–so shouldn’t you walk on the road at all? So with our orphaned pictures on the ‘net. We’ve adapted! I think we’ll find a way to cultivate seclusion too. It’s a matter of time.


  23. ah what wonderful post and reflection upon our loss of being by ourselves alone. I amsure it is a loss. being with myself is the only possible way for me to get to know me and the only time when my mind wanders by itself and find the answers to many many deep questions. other questions appear when in discussion/dialog but I am Sure we need to talk with ourselves more. thanks for an erryeopening post.


  24. I read this post and ached a little for times gone by when I could sit and watch the sun set without any interruptions. When did this need for media consumption become so great? I wish we could bring back some of the elements of the old time days.

    Thank you for this post, it really was an interesting read 🙂


  25. I went on a silent retreat recently. The thought of it scared me, until I got there and – after I stopped fidgeting – experienced Christ in the quietness. He was always there.


  26. It is only lost to those who are unwilling to turn it off, unplug it, and leave it behind. Solitude used to be sought. Now it is feared. Something might be missed. Really? What is being missed by keeping ones nose in an electronic device? Nice thoughtful post.


  27. I LOVE this post! I think it’s my favorite of yours so far.This is something I think about a lot, and it troubles me. I am teaching a “spiritual practices” class right now, and people are truly uncomfortable in silence and solitude, which makes most other spiritual pursuits nearly impossible!. How can we come to know ourselves and our place in the cosmos if we can’t even listen to the silence? This is scary to me. With the “connection,” I feel as if we’re more disconnected than ever in our noise. It’s as if everyone as ADD.

    I am grateful that I live alone – this helps me immensely. I plan to introduce people, technology, and events into my aloneness, rather than being ruled by them. However, all that said, I can fall into cyberspace for 10 hours and occasionally lose entire days on email, facebook, blogs, linkedin, etc., etc.Clicking and viewing and commenting make me feel connected, busy, and even productive. Mostly, though, I think it gives me teensy shots of dopamine with every click.
    Save me from myself and my brain chemicals!
    So – thanks for the food for my rant, and thanks also for the pictures.
    Peace out-


    1. Thanks Melanie. I know, there’s so much noise. But I’m optimistic that people will find solitude in all this commotion. Or maintain a distance with their surroundings which seemingly follows us everywhere! We have to wait and see how that happens.


  28. I like the fact that you distinguish between loneliness and solitude.
    It reminds me of a quote I like: “To be lonely in a world where all are lonely, it would be inexcusably selfish to be lonely alone”.

    Great post!


  29. Sometimes we are alone out of fear of, I don’t know, rejection maybe. We don’t make the effort to be with other people because we are afraid of being hated or hurt. But then again, solitude isn’t so bad either. There is so much noise of life around that it can be hard to find a place quiet enough to relax. Just because you are alone doesn’t mean you are lonely.


  30. A person can never be alone. Even if all the senses are taken away, will never be alone. The moment you think and dream you are always with something or someone.


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