Lately it seems that wherever I turn I am faced with reports and studies warning that my lifestyle is bad for my health and is shortening my life.
Why Living Alone is Dangerous to Your Health,The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2015;
The Toll of a Solitary Life, The New York Times, March 16, 2015;
Why Loneliness May Be The Next Big Public Health Issue, TIME Magazine, March 18, 2015
I have lived alone for years. According to conventional wisdom, I am seriously lacking in social connections. It is not unusual for an entire week to go by without my seeing another person. After decades of raising a family and working outside the home, I am free to do as I please without first considering the needs of others. I am serene. I am becoming self-actualized. My circumstances suit me very well. Or at least I thought so until now.
I know that most people would not choose a solitary life and that health experts believe that living alone is not good for physical or mental health. But since I actually prefer such a life, and feeling positively elated at having got it at last, I would assume that living in perfect alignment with my nature instead of counter to it would negate any bad effects.
But you know what they say – if it feels good, it must be bad for you.
According to a study published recently in Perspectives on Psychological Science titled Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality (http://pps.sagepub.com/content/10/2/227.full), “living alone, having few social network ties, and having infrequent social contact are all markers of social isolation” and increase my risk for early mortality by 32%! “Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages to an individual,” the authors wrote, “physical health is not one of them.” Grimly unequivocal.
And yet . . .
I’m just not buying it. I am not qualified to judge scientific studies, so I won’t try to quarrel with this latest. But I’ve made it to a certain age with no health issues and no loneliness-induced vices, so maybe the odds are tilting back in my favor. But I also believe that solitude for some people, and I am one, is not only essential, but is life-affirming–not life-threatening. To me, getting to that place where we can thrive in our aloneness is a matter of recognizing that we have, every one of us, been alone right from the beginning. We are born alone, we will die alone, and between those two points in time, no matter how many people surround us in how many degrees of intimacy, we are ultimately completely separate from one another.
No one can ever fully know the interior other person except that other person himself. And self-knowledge, which I believe is the key to maximizing the one life we have to live, gives us an inner strength, and the courage and confidence to make the connections that support us in life, as well as to carry on and live our lives to the fullest when we lose those connections. Knowing oneself, really understanding who we are and what we need in order to pull the best for ourselves out of life and to call up the best we have in ourselves to give back, requires time and enormous chunks of solitude. But once you acquire the taste for that particular stillness within and without, you will never give it up.
Following are a few comments and quotes from some singular lovers of solitude. After all, it is a comfort to know we are not alone, isn’t it?
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills . . .
–William Wordsworth, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
The nurse of full-grown souls is solitude.
–James Russell Lowell
I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden
She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.
–Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. –Michel de Montaigne, Essays
If you’re lonely when you’re alone, then you’re in bad company.
If one sets aside time for a business appointment, a trip to the hairdresser, a social engagement, or a shopping expedition, that time is accepted as inviolable. But if one says: I cannot come because that is my hour to be alone, one is considered rude, egotistical or strange.
–Anne Morrow Lindbergh
The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline toward the religion of solitude.
and my personal favorite in this list:
I had become, with the approach of night, once more aware of loneliness and time – those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.
–Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet