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Christine LenahanOctober 20, 2023
Photo from Unsplash.

“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’” (Gn 2:18).

What the Lord God forgot (with all due respect) is that while it is not good for the man to be alone all the time, sometimes man just wants to sit in his flannel pajamas in the company of his Netflix subscription and a crunchy snack that will inevitably leave cheesy residue on his fingers.

The Lord God said it is not good for man to be alone—uh, except for when it is.

Last year, The Washington Post published the headline “Americans are choosing to be alone. Here’s why we should reverse that.” The article showcased data from the most recent compilation of the American Time Use Survey (A.T.U.S.) (2022), showing that Americans are increasingly spending more time alone.

The A.T.U.S. is a seriously dense document, so here are fast facts for you: At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans spent 50.5 percent of their waking hours alone, without significant variation for age, gender or race. Statistically, that makes perfect sense: When a virus is ravaging the world, the safest thing to do—not only for yourself but for others—is to be in isolation. But even before the pandemic, Americans were spending more and more time alone. From 2003 to 2019, the time spent alone jumped from 43.5 percent to 47.5 percent. Statisticians estimate that despite widespread vaccination and shifting cultural opinions surrounding Covid-19, this trend will continue.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

We live in an astonishingly connected culture because human beings are a social breed. I am the self-proclaimed queen of orchestrating an elaborate group message about a social gathering and posting photos of my merry clan together. Yet in these social settings, I still watch the time tick by until it is socially acceptable to head back to the candle-lit cocoon of my bedroom and enjoy some well-deserved bed rot. Why go hard when you can go home?

I love being alone, and I still call myself an extrovert. I love going on walks and listening to audiobooks all by my very happy lonesome. I like sitting in a busy cafe and getting a ridiculously expensive latte and whispering to myself, “Shoot, I wish this weren’t so good.” And I love doing those activities alone just as much as I love doing them with other people. 

Human beings need solitude just as much as we do companionship.

Human beings need solitude just as much as we do companionship. Instead of responding to this desire for solitude, we vehemently avoid being alone by creating robust social calendars, affirming our friendships with social media posts or labeling our alone time as “self-care,” decorating our human need for solitude with a trendy title.

There is also an unspoken social stigma about being seen alone. If you are alone, you must be lonely. Venturing into a new restaurant and saying, “Table for one, please” is an act of courage in today’s world, where we are quick to judge the solo-diner as a loner. If you’ve sat by yourself in a busy café—without a book or laptop to keep you company—then perhaps you are familiar with the mental gymnastics it takes to convince yourself that these random strangers are not looking down upon you with pity. When a group of friends who are laughing playfully like they are ready to be photographed for the cover of a college admissions pamphlet walks into the café, it requires a level of personal confidence only gained through exposure therapy to remind oneself that they are more concerned with their lattes than with you.

I’m guilty of this alone-but-not-lonely phenomenon. On Sunday nights, I chart out my tasks for the week, and often “see three friends this week” appears on the list. Even when I want to lie horizontally for an ungodly amount of time with only my favorite pair of archaic sweatpants and a book (preferably a terrifying thriller) to worry about, I force myself to be social. Not because I want to, not because I am particularly craving time in the company of the friends whom I love, but because that’s what I’m “supposed to do.” Right?

I’m not so sure. Of course, being social has many merits, and time with friends and family is undoubtedly fulfilling, but it is okay to want to be alone too. Being alone can be sacred. I don’t just mean in reflection or prayer, which are valuable in their own right, but doing everyday activities solo has practical benefits. Being alone grows our confidence by allowing us to get to know ourselves better—discerning what we like and don’t like. Studies have shown that time in solitude helps us regulate our emotions so that we can better interact with others.

Not to mention that the spiritual benefits of being alone are abundant. Our alone time enriches our spiritual life by providing a space where we can take a concentrated look at who we are. It can be frightening to traverse an otherwise unexplored spiritual wilderness. But it’s hard to imagine that we can reach any sort of spiritual understanding if we are constantly immersed in social groups. In fact, asking friends for some time alone and explaining why this is not a reflection on their company can be a communal exercise that generates trust and understanding among friends.

Our alone time enriches our spiritual life by providing a space where we can take a concentrated look at who we are.

Friends and family show us the work of God in our lives, but taking time to be with oneself may help us to realize that we are never truly alone. We can deepen our spiritual connection to an ever-present friendship with God. Time spent with oneself in any form is a gift.

But all too often, we confuse being alone and being lonely. Being lonely is a feeling of isolation or lack of social connection, an acute gnawing at that human need for a companion, a conversation partner or simply the presence of another person. We feel lonely because our desire for a companion surpasses our ability to find one.

Being alone, on the other hand, means being with oneself. When we are alone, we consider ourselves our conversation partner, our built-in companion.

We can and should laud the efforts of anti-loneliness crusaders. What researchers call “the loneliness effect” has gripped Americans both pre- and post-pandemic. Loneliness is linked to anxiety and depression, a higher risk of early death and an increase in the risk of heart attack or stroke. Because of its severe physical and psychological impacts, the surgeon general of the United States has deemed “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation is a major public health concern.”

The pandemic may have altered our sociocognitive hardwiring, with research suggesting that social hangouts have become less important to Americans. We do not have the mental bandwidth or general interest in being social.

Perhaps now is the time to be alone: to find beauty in our solitude, peace in the quiet.

We forget solitude can be a choice rather than something we are forced into because of a lack of a social circle. Even for those who are often filled with that icy sense of loneliness, reframing loneliness as solitude may have its merits. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the protagonist, John Ames, says, “I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me.” Finding goodness in moments alone, when we are willing to be present to our thoughts, may strengthen our connection to our internal selves. Being alone can help us recognize the companionship already within us and to celebrate that gift.

People are more lonely, more anxious and more overwhelmed now than they were before March 2020. That’s probably because we are living in the wake of a pandemic that has collapsed not only economic, labor and health care systems, but also our social systems that dictated the ways we interact with one another.

So perhaps now is the time to be alone: to find beauty in our solitude, peace in the quiet.

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