How To Be Alone

Sara Maitland “How To Be Alone” [Macmillan; Main Market Ed. edition January 2, 2014]
“Learn how to enjoy solitude and find happiness without others. Our fast-paced society does not approve of solitude; being alone is literally anti-social and some even find it sinister. Why is this so when autonomy, personal freedom and individualism are more highly prized than ever before? Sara Maitland answers this question by exploring changing attitudes throughout history. Offering experiments and strategies for overturning our fear of solitude, she to helps us to practise it without anxiety and encourages us to see the benefits of spending time by ourselves, By indulging in the experience of being alone, we can be inspired to find our own rewards and ultimately lead more enriched, fuller lives.”
solitude 2
“From the outside, solitude and loneliness look a lot alike. Both are characterized by solitariness. But all resemblance ends at the surface. Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely—perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.
Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.”
Hara Estroff Marano,
“I live alone. I have lived alone for more than 20 years now. I do not just mean that I am single – I live in what might seem to many people to be “isolation” rather than simply “solitude”. My home is in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, and I live in one of the emptiest parts of it: the average population density of the UK is 674 people per sq mile (246 per sq km). In my valley, we have (on average) more than three sq miles each. The nearest shop is 10 miles away, and the nearest supermarket more than 20. There is no mobile-phone connection and very little through-traffic uses the single-track road that runs a quarter of a mile below my house. On occasion, I do not see another person all day. I love it.
Sara Maitland in Carlin’s Cairn, Galloway Forest Park
But there is a problem, a serious cultural problem, about solitude. Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and wellbeing. In the first place, and rather urgently, the question needs to be asked. And then – possibly, tentatively, over a longer period of time – we need to try to answer it.

The question itself is a little slippery but it looks something like this: how have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world at least, at a cultural moment that values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfilment and human rights, and, above all, individualism, more highly than ever before, while at the same time those who are autonomous, free and self-fulfilling are terrified of being alone with themselves?

We apparently believe that we own our bodies and should be allowed to do with them more or less anything we choose, from euthanasia to a boob job, but we do not want to be on our own with these precious possessions. We live in a society that sees high self-esteem as a proof of wellbeing, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.
We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity – solitude. We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is “sad, mad or bad”. Or all three at once…
Sara Maitland1.jpg
My mother was widowed shortly after she turned 60. She lived alone for the remaining 25 years of her life. I do not think she was ever reconciled to her single status. She was much loved by a great many, often rather unexpected, people. But I think she felt profoundly lonely after my father died, and she could not bear the fact that I was enjoying solitude. I had abandoned marriage, in her view, and was now happy as a pig in clover. It appalled her – and she launched a part-time but sustained attack on my moral status: I was selfish. It was “selfish” to live on my own and enjoy it.

Interestingly, this is a very old charge. In the fourth century AD, when enthusiastic young Christians were leaving Alexandria in droves to become hermits in the Egyptian desert, their bishop, Basil, infuriated, demanded of one of them: “And whose feet will you wash in the desert?” The implication was that in seeking their own salvation outside the community, they were neither spreading the faith nor ministering to the poor; they were being selfish. This is a theme that has cropped up repeatedly ever since, particularly in the 18th century, but it has a new edge in contemporary society, because we do not have the same high ethic of “civil” or public duty. We are supposed now to seek our own fulfilment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness – but, mysteriously, not to do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgment and weak logic. I write a monthly column for the “Tablet” (a Catholic weekly magazine) partly about living on my own. One month I wrote about the way a conflict of duties can arise: how “charitable” is the would-be hermit meant to be about the needs and demands of her friends? One might anticipate that a broadly Catholic readership would be more sympathetic to the solitary life because it has such a long (and respected) tradition behind it. But I got some poisonous letters, including one from someone who had never met me, but who nonetheless felt free to send a long vitriolic note that said, among other things: “Given that you are obviously a person without natural affections and a grudging attitude towards others, it is probably good for the rest of us that you should withdraw into your own egocentric and selfish little world; but you should at least be honest about it.”
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And yet it is not clear why it is so morally reprehensible to choose to live alone. It is hard to pin down exactly what people mean by the various charges they make, probably because they do not know themselves. For example, the “sad” charge is irrefutable – not because it is true but because it is always based on the assumption that the person announcing that you are, in fact, deeply unhappy has some insider knowledge of your emotional state greater than your own. If you say, “Well, no actually; I am very happy”, the denial is held to prove the case. Recently, someone trying to console me in my misery said, when I assured them I was in fact happy: “You may think you are.” But happiness is a feeling. I do not think it – I feel it. I may, of course, be living in a fool’s paradise and the whole edifice of joy and contentment is going to crash around my ears sometime soon, but at the moment I am either lying or reporting the truth.

The charges of being mad or bad have more arguability. But the first thing to establish is how much solitude the critics of the practice consider “too much”. At what point do we feel that someone is developing into a dangerous lunatic or a wicked sinner? Because clearly there is a difference between someone who prefers to bath alone and someone who goes off to live on an uninhabited island that can only be reached during the spring tides; between someone who tells a friend on the telephone that they think they’ll give tonight’s group get-together a miss because they fancy an evening to themselves, and someone who cancels all social engagements for the next four months in order to stay in alone. If you are writing great books or accomplishing notable feats, we are more likely to admire than criticise your “bravery” and “commitment”…
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There are no statistics for this, but my impression is that we do not mind anyone being alone for one-off occasions – particularly if they are demonstrably sociable the rest of the time – or for a distinct and interesting purpose; what seems to bother us are those individuals who make solitude a significant part of their life and their ideal of happiness.
It is all relative anyway. I live a solitary life, but Neil the postman comes most days. The cheerful young farmer who works the sheep on my hill roars by on his quad bike at least three or four days a week, passing with a cheerful wave. I have a phone; I go to church every Sunday. I have friends and children, and sometimes they even come to visit me. Small rural communities are inevitably, oddly, social – I know the names and something of the circumstances of every single person who lives within five miles of me. (There is nothing in the world more sociable than a single-track road with passing places.) And even if I lived in deeper solitude I would live with a web of social dependencies: I read books that are written by people; I buy food that is produced by people and sold to me by people; I flick on the light switch and a constantly maintained grid delivers electricity and my lights come on.

So it is useful to ask oneself how much solitude it takes to tip over into supposed madness or badness; it is certainly useful to ask those who are being critical of anyone who seems to enjoy more aloneness than they themselves feel comfortable with.
solitude koch
In his book Solitude, Philip Koch attempts to break down the accusations into something resembling logical and coherent arguments, so as to challenge them: he suggests that the critics of silence find the desire for it “mad” (or tending towards madness) for various reasons.

Solitude is unnatural. Homo sapiens is genetically and evolutionarily a herd or pack animal. We all have a basic biosocial drive, according to Paul Hamlos in “Solitude and Privacy”: “sharing experience, close contiguity of comradeship and face-to-face co-operative effort have always been a fundamental and vital need of man (sic) … the individual of a gregarious species can never be truly independent and self-sufficient … Natural selection has ensured that as an individual he must have an abiding sense of incompleteness.” People who do not share this “force of phylic cohesion” are obviously either deviant or ill.

Solitude is pathological. Psychology, psychiatry and particularly psychoanalysis are all insistent that personal relationships, ideally both intimate and sexually fulfilled, are necessary to health and happiness. Freud originated this idea and it has been consistently maintained and developed by attachment theorists (such as John Bowlby) and particularly object-relation theorists (such as Melanie Klein) – and is generally held and taught throughout the discipline. (This may also underpin the idea that you are not “really” happy on your own. Since you need other people to be mentally well, then thinking you are happy alone is necessarily deluded.)

Solitude is dangerous (so enjoying it is masochistic). It is physically dangerous because if you have even a minor accident there will be no one to rescue you, and it is psychically dangerous because you have no ordinary reality checks; no one will notice the early warning signs.

These three arguments are based on assumptions that – were they correct for all people at all times – would indeed need to be answered. I personally think (and I’m not alone) that they are not correct in themselves and do not allow for individual difference.
The “moral” arguments, however, at least as Koch defines them, are rather more absurd.

This second group of objections to solitude tend to be exactly the opposite of the first group.

Solitude is self-indulgent. The implication here is that it is hedonistic and egotistical – that somehow life alone is automatically happier, easier, more fun and less nitty-gritty than serious social engagement, and that everyone in the pub is exercising, comparatively at least, noble self-discipline and fortitude, and spending hours a day in the unselfish miserable labour of serving their neighbours’ needs.

Solitude is escapist. People who like being alone are running away from “reality”, refusing to make the effort to “commit” to real life and live instead in a half-dream fantasy world. They should “man up”, get real, get a grip. But if social life is so natural, healthy and joyous as contemporary society insists, why would anyone be “escaping” from it?

Solitude is antisocial. Well, of course it is – that’s the point. This argument is tautological. But “antisocial” is a term that carries implicit rather than explicit moral condemnation; it is clearly a “bad thing” without it being at all clear what it might mean. All this actually says is “solitude is preferring to be alone rather than with others/me [the speaker] and I am hurt”. It is true, but is based on the assumption that being alone is self-evidently a bad thing, and being social is equally self-evidently a good thing.

Solitude evades social responsibility. This implies that all of us have something called a “social responsibility”, without defining what that might be or consist of, but whatever it is, for some unexpressed reason it cannot be done by a person who is – for however much of their time – alone.

Now, clearly, even here, there are some interesting discussions to be had. What exactly do personal relationships provide that nothing else can offer? Could, for example, Anthony Storr be right about creative work offering compensatory alternative or even better gratification? Or a sense of meaningfulness? Could some people’s peaceful, happy solitude function as an antidote, or even a balance, to the frenetic social activity of others? What, exactly, is our social responsibility in a society in which most people feel powerless? How does multiculturalism work in terms of individuals as opposed to groups? Why do other people’s claims to be happy in a different way from oneself provoke so much anxiety – and why is that anxiety so commonly expressed as judgment and condemnation, rather than genuine concern? How does a society choose which issues it allows itself to be judgmental about, if it has no clear idea of the ultimate good? And, above all, why are these conversations not happening? I believe it is because of fear. Fear paralyses creativity, stultifies the imagination, reduces problem-solving ability, damages health, depletes energy, saps intelligence and destroys hope. And, also, it does not feel good.

Fear muddles things up; it is difficult to think clearly when you are scared. When we are frightened, we tend to project this on to other people, often as anger: anyone who seems different starts to feel threatening. And one problem with this is that these projections “stick”. If you tell people enough times that they are unhappy, incomplete, possibly insane and definitely selfish, there is bound to come a cold, grey morning when they wake up with the beginning of a nasty cold and wonder if they are lonely rather than simply “alone”. There is a contemporary phenomenon which adds to the problem: the mass media make money out of fear…

It is evident that a great many people, for many different reasons, throughout history and across cultures, have sought out solitude to the extent that Garbo did, and after experiencing that lifestyle for a while continue to uphold their choice, even when they have perfectly good opportunities to live more social lives. On average, they do not turn into schizoid serial killers, predatory paedophiles or evil monomaniacs. Some of them, in fact, turn into great artists, creative thinkers and saints – however, not everyone who likes to be alone is a genius, and not all geniuses like to be alone. Why do we have such a problem with being alone?”
Extract from Sara Maitland, The Guardian, Saturday 11 January 2014

“How did you come to live the solitary life? Was it a sudden decision or did it evolve gradually?
I didn’t seek solitude, it sought me. It evolved gradually after my marriage broke down. I found myself living on my own in a small country village. At first I was miserable and cross. It took me between six months and a year before I noticed that I had become phenomenally happy. And this was about being alone – not about being away from my husband. I found out, for instance, how much I liked being in my garden. My subconscious was cleverer than my conscious in choosing to live alone. The discovery about solitude was a surprise in waiting.
Yet isn’t writing a book such as How to Be Alone a way of communicating with others, of not being alone?
It is. Anthony Storr [author of “Solitude: A Return to the Self”] is right about companionship through writing and creative work.
storr solitude
In my book about silence [“A Book of Silence”, 2008] I conclude that complete silence and writing are incompatible.
maitland silence
How would you distinguish between solitude and loneliness?
Solitude is a description of a fact: you are on your own. Loneliness is a negative emotional response to it. People think they will be lonely and that is the problem – the expectation is also now a cultural assumption.
If someone has not chosen to be alone, is bereaved or divorced, do you think they can make solitude feel like a choice?
It is possible. That has been my autobiography. They need more knowledge about it, to read about the lives of solitaries who have enjoyed it, to take it on, see what is good in it. Since I wrote about silence, many bereaved people have written asking: how do I do it? The largest groups of people living alone are women over 65 and separated men in their 40s. A lot of solitude is not chosen. It may come to any of us.
Do you ever feel lonely?
Very seldom because I have good friends and there are telephones and Skype. But broadband was down for a week over Christmas. I couldn’t Skype the kids and did find myself asking: why didn’t I go to my brother who had warmly invited me?
So what was Christmas like on your own in rural Galloway?
It was bliss. On Christmas Eve the tiny village five miles away has a nativity play. Young adults come home, it’s a very happy event. On the day itself I drank a little bit more than I should have done sitting in front of my fire. I had a long walk. It was lovely…
How much do you use the internet and social media?
Social media not at all. But when broadband went I realised how excessively I use it. Without it, I read more. I’m making a big patchwork quilt. I did more that week than in the past three months. It made me realise I have got to get this online thing under control. When I first came here I had it switched off three days a week but that has slipped.
You seem to lead a non-materialistic life. What three things would you most hate to lose from your shepherd’s cottage?
Last Christmas my son gave me a dragon hoodie – bright green with pink spikes. I’d be sad to lose it. I’d hate to lose photos of my children. And I’d be seriously sad to lose Zoe, my border collie. I took her on because she got out of control in an urban community. She was seeking a wilder, freer life.
Yet in the book you suggest it’s cheating on the solitary life to have a dog when you walk…?
The pure soul probably doesn’t have a dog. I have a dog but no television.
You mention having suffered depression earlier in your life – was this related to lack of solitude?
That is a correct reading, although I would not use it diagnostically. I’m deeply fond of my family but they put a high value on extroversion. I come from an enormous family and have spent a lot of time pretending I wasn’t introverted.
Yet deciding whether one is extrovert or introvert is not straightforward?
Everyone has a differing need for solitude. I feel we haven’t created space for children to find out what they need. I’ve never heard of being sent to your room as a reward. In my childhood – I had a happy home – being alone was thought weird. I’d like people to be offered solitude as an ordinary thing….
How does love fit into the solitary life?
How much loving are people doing if they’re socialising 24/7? And if the loving is only to be loved, what is unselfish about that? The fact you’re on your own does not mean you are not loving.

Extracts from “Sara Maitland: ‘My subconscious was cleverer than my conscious in choosing to live alone’” Interview by Kate Kellaway, The Observer, Sunday 2 February 2014
Writer Sara Maitland near her home on the Galloway moors, Dirniemow, New Luce, Scotland
Sara Maitland is a British writer and feminist. She is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the Somerset Maugham Award-winning “Daughters of Jerusalem” and several non-fiction books about religion. Born in 1950, she studied at Oxford University and lives in Galloway. For Sara Maitland, see and

For the School of Life series see

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