Walden Pond — the epicenter of modern thinking about solitude — is about 20 minutes from where I grew up in Massachusetts. I’ve enjoyed many memories at this pond: early morning swims with my father, shore-side picnics, and beach days with my friend.
There have been other occasions, perhaps more notable, when I visited the pond alone. There, with no one but myself to please, I walked along the trail, traversing patches of ice in the winter and unruly roots in the summer. I stopped often to pause and reflect, amazed at how much beauty there is from each vantage point of the pond.
About a 15-minute walk from the main beach and secluded from the trail that encircles the pond lay the foundation of the cabin that once housed the great writer, thinker, and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. For a little over two years, Thoreau spent his days taking in the curves of the pond, the peaks of the waves, the insects, the crooning of the loons, and the abundant gifts of mother nature. It was in this cabin along the shores of the pond that Thoreau began the first draft of his well-known book, Walden.
Thoreau chose to “live deliberately,” breaking off from society to see what he would discover. His closest neighbor was about a mile walk away. Although separated from others for prolonged periods of time, Thoreau did not feel that gnawing that so many of us feel when we’re alone. He used the time alone to explore his interior life and embraced the adventure of finding his place in the world. Living in solitude was a way for him to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
Like Thoreau, I am often content to be away from others rather than in close proximity. I’ve always been an introvert at heart and so, naturally, I do not shy away from solitude. I find it freeing to map out my day without being accountable to anybody but myself.
Like everyone else, though, there are times when I get self-conscious. I will be out alone at a restaurant, bar, or bookshop and suddenly become very aware that I am alone. I start to wonder how I am being perceived by others. Do these people notice that I am alone? Do they feel bad that I am alone?
Now, more than ever, we fear solitude. We see others socializing and it casts a harsh shadow over our own situation. Social media has exacerbated the problem, opening the floodgates for comparison as we see pictures and videos of others having fun. I imagine it’s an even greater challenge for the extroverts of the world. As an introvert, I can manage, but for the extroverts out there, I’m sure the idea of embracing solitude is even more daunting.
This fear we feel can deter us from venturing out alone altogether. So how can we learn to embrace solitude in our own lives?
Dive into solitude head-first
The book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall chronicles super runners and the Tarahumara or Rarámuri, a tribe in Mexico who for years have mystified the world with their agility and endurance during hundred-mile runs — all while wearing sandals. In the book, McDougall talks about how some of the greatest runners beat fatigue. Instead of sulking in it, they learn to embrace it. “The only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it,” he writes.
I think the same goes for solitude. It can be intimidating going to a cafe alone, seeing a movie by ourselves, or even spending a night at home alone when we could be out with friends. But the best way to get over that fear is to conquer it head-on. Maybe this means getting into a routine where you go out alone once a week and spend time reading the paper, writing, or just taking in the scene around you. It may be a bit of an adjustment at first, but this exercise of pushing yourself a little each day will pay off.
Learn to listen to what you want
In addition to pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, we should also pay attention to what we truly desire. This means not shying away from the things we want to do just because others don’t want the same thing.
One of my favorite memories is when I went to the ballet at the Kennedy Center alone. None of my friends wanted to go, so I figured I’d go by myself. And I have to say — it is one of my favorite memories to date. I dressed up, got a killer seat right by the orchestra, and witnessed an absolutely beautiful show. The experience taught me that following what you want — whether it be with others or by yourself — is one of the best forms of self-care.
Avoid getting stuck on what others think
Along with challenging ourselves, we also have to keep in mind that it doesn’t matter what other people think about us. If you are enjoying your time alone, then that’s what counts. You may feel like others are staring at you, making assumptions about why you aren’t with anyone. But, hey, maybe they’re actually thinking, Wow, I really respect that person. After all, not everyone has the guts to go out by themselves, right? Just remember that most of the pressure we feel from being alone comes from ourselves, not from others. It’s learning to turn off that pressure that’s important.
For most of us, it isn’t practical to replicate Thoreau’s experiment. We cannot quit our jobs and live off the land, free from familial and societal obligations. But I do believe we can cultivate that same sense of security and peace that Thoreau felt. It may seem like a gargantuan task, but if we’re able to challenge ourselves, listen to ourselves, and let go of what others might think about us, then little by little we will come to know the great gift that is solitude.