solitude in the era of the infinite scroll
notes from a crinkly, yellowing psychiatry book
I’ve been spending a lot of time chewing and chewing on the following question:
“What would you do with yourself if you had nothing left to prove?”
I’m in a fortunate position in my life. I’ve largely achieved everything I materially desired as a kid. I make good money while working in an industry that rewards creativity, autonomy, and self-direction.
…What now? Why do I still feel like I have something left to prove?
As part of chewing on this question, I revisited an old text that floated back up on my bookshelf at the right time — Solitude: A Return to the Self by psychiatrist Anthony Storr, an exploration of why we seek solitude and how it can serve our deepest instincts as humans.
Here are some notes/excerpts. Hope you find them as compelling as I have.
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole
According to Carl Jung, the life of a person can be analyzed as such:
The young individual emancipates himself from his original family to establish himself in the world.
Then the middle aged individual discovers and expresses his own uniqueness as an individual.
Finally, in old age, there is a tendency to turn from empathy towards abstraction; to be less involved in life’s dramas, more concerned with life’s patterns.
Put in other words, there are three phases of artistry in life:
The first period of artistry: the capacity for productive reaction against one’s training. To use one’s imagination to avoid destructive instincts. The courage to dispense with aspects of the past that are irrelevant to himself.
The second period: the manifestation of both mastery and individuality, being able to pursue one’s individual expression and some objective standard without disintegrating or falling apart.
The third period: the view of belonging to the magnificent pattern and tapestry of individuals struggling to belong and to be free.
The Search of Coherence
What happens when this emancipation does not occur? We see it most clearly in men who become neurotic in mid-life because they have been false to themselves for too long.
The deepest anxiety of falseness one can experience is “disintegration anxiety” felt by such individuals who have not built up a strong, coherent personality. This anxiety sometimes manifests as obsessive compulsive drives towards people, things, ideas, and art.
Some people are so disturbed when relationships go wrong because for them the meaning of life is bound up in intimate relationships. When relationships fall apart, so do they.
Others say only in solitude do they feel most themselves — their most creative selves. They may have a tough time maintaining relationships, which become impositions on their lives.
Personality arises as the interplay between external relationships and internal individuality. Personality to Jung was “the supreme realization of the innate idiosyncrasy of a living being,” the spectacular oddness of being both in and of the world.
The pursuit of this realization leaves us seeking a perpetual balance — we cannot ignore relationships but we also cannot ignore ourselves. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.
The Capacity to Be Alone
Even those in the healthiest of relationships have something other than relationships to complete their fulfillment. And even the most intimate relationship is bound to have flaws. It is often people who do not accept this that end up unhappier than necessary.
Hobbies and interests often most clearly define one’s individuality. To discover what really interests a person is to be well on the way to understanding them.
In solitude, we can cultivate these interests, discover our personality, emancipate ourselves from our patterned reactions, and come in contact with our authentic, imaginative, creative selves.
The capacity to be alone originates in a child being alone in the presence of mother. In this aloneness, the child can discover his personal life.
Without this stable experience of solitude (whether through neglect or separation anxiety), a child may develop a “false self”, one that is overly compliant and living in ways expected of him.
These children become strangers to themselves. They may grow up to repress their “authentic self” and develop a stance of placation towards life. Only do what will be met by everyone’s approval.
Cultivating a Sense of Agency
It has been shown that people who feel their lives are mainly controlled by external forces suffer more from illness than those with a strong sense of agency over their lives.
Those who can turn to creative work have an advantage over those whose self-esteem relies entirely upon close relationships. In the solitude of creative work … the extraverted person who loses himself in others can recover. The introverted person impaired by early separation and isolation can find solace.
The creative person is constantly seeking to discover himself, to remodel his own identity, and to find meaning in the universe through what he creates. He finds this a valuable integrating process which, like meditation or prayer, has little to do with other people, but which has its own separate validity.
The work done in solitude grants permission to an individual to be himself, primarily by showing him who he even is. With this self-permission finally granted, he can increasingly be his authentic self in the presence of himself and others.