The holiday season seems to be a good time to revisit the importance of solitude.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve truly been enjoying the lights and music of the season, family traditions (oh, those homemade perogies at our Christmas Eve feast!), the joy of watching 4-year old Everly Rose embrace in equal measure the arrival of Santa and the Baby Jesus story, out-of-town visitors, and the seasonal open-heartedness one encounters even from passing strangers in the Village.
But I’m physically craving some delicious solitude right about now. . .
Dr. Ester Buchholz, author of The Call of Solitude, describes solitude as “meaningful alone-time” – a powerful need and a necessary tonic in today’s rapid-fire world. Indeed, she maintains that solitude “actually allows us to connect to others in a far richer way”.
She likely didn’t write that as specific advice for those of us living with heart disease, but it struck me when I read her words that, although they are probably true for all women, they seem especially applicable to those living with a chronic illness.
Indeed, maybe our heart health would actually improve if we were more determined to carve out more precious “me-time” during the average day. We’re not talking about social isolation, but about carefully balancing busy time and quiet alone time.
I clearly remember a distressing stage long ago when I was the young Mum of both a preschooler and an infant (and was often a single parent due to my husband’s demanding travel schedule at the time) – a time when “me-time” was essentially impossible. I recall, for example, trying to block out a 15-minute period of quiet time during each day for my mindfulness meditation exercise, and realizing to my profound dismay that I simply could not do it without a crying infant or her busy big brother breaking up my plan.
How is it possible, I wailed internally, that I can’t find 15 uninterrupted minutes in my day for MYSELF?
Years later, the art of enjoying my own company was fostered during business travel on my own when I worked in corporate PR, which then seamlessly morphed into happily solo leisure travel, too (France, Spain, Hawaii, Belgium, among other holiday destinations over the years). The siren call of being able to get away from the persistent demands of everyday work/family/social stressors – and even just small talk – seemed irresistible even back then.
Laurie Erdman at Chronic Wellness Coaching is a woman who lives with a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis; she reminds us that, historically, the way we have handled being alone has changed dramatically:
“The word ‘alone’ did not always mean an absence of others. The word was coined in medieval times, and originally signified a completeness in one’s singular being. In religious terminology, ‘solitude’ typically meant the experience of oneness with God.
“Yet all current meanings of ‘alone’ imply a lack of something.
“Invariably, solitude meets with social questioning, if not censure. Perhaps most striking, solitude conjures up pangs of loneliness. The very idea of solitude may evoke deep childhood fears of abandonment and neglect, and cause some people to rush toward connectedness.
“Surprisingly, it can also tell us that we are not taking time to be in contact with our inner selves – to be alone.”
Laurie suggests that learning how to enjoy time alone can bring the “ultimate in peaceful moments”. Solitude, she explains, is when you can shut out all the responsibilities, obligations, duties and chaos of life and create a small sanctuary of healing calm:
“Psychology is only just beginning to distinguish aloneness from loneliness.
“People inside a tight-knit nuclear family can be just as unknown and lonely as those living on their own. Attachments are not automatically fulfilling relationships. In some cases, attachments are maintained only at the cost of extreme personal compromise: people speak of being shackled and held hostage in a relationship. Certainly there are well-made marriages, but if we are primarily social animals, why would bonding prove so arduous?
“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest.
“Alone-time is fuel for life.”
As Laurie says, distinguishing (good) “aloneness” from (bad) “loneliness” can be a tall order.
Even while writing this article, I had a hard time finding an appropriate image to illustrate it. Searching online for pictures representing “woman+solitude” inevitably resulted in photo after photo of grim grey faces staring through rain-flecked windows looking like they’d just lost their best friend.
“More than ever these days, I want to shrink the world to the couple of rooms in my house where I’m most comfortable. I’ve been declining requests for my time, and the social whirl is less compelling than it ever was. To me, a perfect evening often means stretching out in the den and vanishing into a good novel. It’s part of the healing process, of coming to grips with my new vulnerability.
“I want to nest. I’m doing well physically, but my spirit is still convalescing. I take pleasure in the most gentle rhythms of daily life: walking the dog, meeting a friend for breakfast, getting a haircut.
“I’m still reinterpreting myself in the face of illness, and that takes time and quiet. It can’t be rushed, and I can’t do it successfully if I’m caught up in our huckster culture’s unrelenting ruckus.”
Like Dana, I too want to nest. My own days living with ongoing cardiac symptoms caused by coronary microvascular disease are now categorized as what I call “one-outing days” or “two-outing days” or (rarely) “three-outing days”, with lots of quiet downtime in between each outing to repair and recuperate.
It’s not that I don’t love spending time with family and friends, but I’ve discovered that this time needs to be carefully balanced with quiet. When a busy morning can be followed by a lovely afternoon enjoying a book or a solo walk along the ocean, for example, I get to appreciate my own company while recharging my batteries – and without having to think at all about communicating.
For many heart patients, it seems that even keeping up our end of a lively conversation can feel exhausting.
And as author Dr. Ester Buchholz reminded us in her book:
“Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay
Q: What’s your favourite form of creating moments of solitude?