Solitude is a wonderful (in fact, the only) way to uncover the person you are behind the persona you present.
“Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavours to lead man to himself.
Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait…
Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism.”
– Herman Hesse
What would you think if a total stranger came up to you on the street and said, “I love you!”? I suppose your answer might somewhat depend on whether they were cute or not, but even if you very much wanted to believe that their declaration was true, you might think that they had mistaken you for somebody else, and/or they were delusional and should probably be locked up.
You probably wouldn’t believe that they love you, because they don’t know the first thing about you. They might lust after you, and want to get to know you better, but any love they imagine they feel for you is likely to be groundless and shallow.
Where am I going with this? We’re told we should respect and love ourselves if we want to be happy, and this is good advice, but first we have to know ourselves. If our respect and love isn’t grounded in self-knowledge, it’s just ego and puffery. Muhammad Ali used to claim to be “the greatest”, and he actually was, at least for a while. I’m sure we can all think of people who lay claim to being the greatest at what they do, but based on self-delusion rather than self-awareness.
The Persona is Not the Person
Speaking for myself, it took me a long time to get to know myself, and to appreciate myself for who I am, while accepting who I am not. Starting in childhood, most of us develop a public persona, which is an amalgam of the traits and behaviours that seem to win approval and make us popular. Over time, we observe how people respond to our words and actions, and modify our persona accordingly.
In children this is called socialisation, which is defined as “the process whereby an individual learns to adjust to a group (or society) and behave in a manner approved by the group (or society)”, or “a process with the help of which a living organism is changed into a social being… it is a process through which the younger generation learns the adult role which it has to play subsequently.”
Socialisation is generally regarded as a good thing, and an important by-product of the education system. We’ve probably all met someone who, for whatever reason — possibly being on the autistic spectrum, or just a natural rebel — hasn’t fully embraced socialisation, and they can be rather unpredictable and challenging to be around for us more conventional folks.
But at what point does socialisation become people-pleasing? When does fitting in tip over into losing ourselves? When do we start to mistake our persona for our true self?
But Who Am I?
I have definitely been through this uncomfortable realisation that my socialised self had usurped the place of me, to the extent that I didn’t know who I was any more. All looked fine from the outside, but on the inside I became aware of a tiny, timid little voice that was crying for help. “I’m in here! Help meeeee! Let me out!” And I realised that I was going to have to integrate both my seen and unseen selves if I was going to be able to truly love and respect myself.
I can highly recommend spending over a hundred days at sea, alone in a rowboat, as a golden opportunity to get to know yourself. Self-isolation due to a pandemic also really works. In fact, any solo situation — a retreat, a long walk, traveling alone — is a chance to leave behind the socialised persona and get to know yourself better.
I realise this sounds like an immense amount of work, and possibly not very much fun. So why should you bother? Three main reasons.
First, as Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, said:
“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and — in spite of True Romance magazines — we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely — at least, not all the time — but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.”
Thompson may not be your ideal role model — his dying wishes expressed that, after his suicide, his friend Johnny Depp should arrange for his ashes to be fired out of a cannon, so he was definitely out there at the quirky end of the spectrum — but on this matter I believe he was correct.
Second, a bit later on in this book I’m going to come to the importance of having a purpose, as it’s enormously helpful in getting through any kind of hardship, including isolation. To find a purpose that really lights your fire, you need to know who you are, and find something that meshes with your unique gifts and passions. If you don’t know yourself, you’re likely to end up trying to live somebody else’s purpose, which won’t work nearly so well.
Third, speaking personally, I have been exponentially happier since I figured out who I am and what makes me tick. That’s not to say that I’m attached to the current version of me — indeed, I hope I will always be evolving and changing, or I would get very bored with myself — but I have a much greater sense of my own power and agency since I started being wholeheartedly me, rather than trying to be somebody else.
When I didn’t know who I was, I felt like I was trying to be several different people at once, and they were all pulling in different directions. Imagine a cart with six horses, and all the horses have a different idea about where they want to go. At best, the cart will be stuck at a standstill in the middle. At worst, it will get pulled apart. Neither scenario is good. Gradually I got all my horses heading in the same direction, and suddenly we were galloping off to the races at high speed. The ride is exhilarating, and I’m loving it.
Whoever you are, you have something totally unique to offer. All your accumulated experiences, desires, ideas — even the way you see the world — are not replicated, nor replicable, in anybody else in the whole world. If you don’t know who you are, it’s going to be an uphill battle trying to find your place and your purpose. It’s all a matter of knowing who you are, and once you’ve done that, you it will become clear where you fit in, and where you will thrive.
Where do you feel out of integrity with yourself? When you think of your various social situations — family, friends, work, community — do you notice any tension between who you feel yourself to be, and the face you present? Do you ever pretend to enjoy things that you don’t actually like?
If money was no object, what would you love to do with your time? Can you find a way to make a living out of that? (For heaven’s sake, if PewDiePie can make $12 million out of making videos of himself playing video games, isn’t there at least a chance that you can make enough to live on out of doing something rather more constructive?) What did you want to be when you were a child? Did you really have to give up on that dream, or can you rekindle it?
If you’re worried that people might not like you when you drop your socialised persona in favour of being you, please don’t. The integrity and energy that you generate when you become yourself are incredibly charismatic. When you are happy in your own skin, you become radiant and luminous, and people will be drawn to you.
This is an excerpt from my new book, The Gifts of Solitude, which came out on 20th April. As you will know if you’ve read my last few posts, I was inspired to write this book by the coronavirus crisis, and hearing that many people were struggling with feelings of fear, isolation, and loneliness. I spent up to five months completely alone when I was rowing solo across oceans, so I feel I am well qualified to offer some coping strategies — and above and beyond that, I also offer pointers to the beautiful gifts that come when we learn to be at ease in our own company.
The first half of the book is about surviving solitude, and is aimed at those who might feel they are drowning. The second half of the book is for those who already have their heads above water, and want to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an accelerant to greater sense of purpose, emotional maturity and self-reliance.
The Amazon link (valid across all Amazon sites) is http://mybook.to/TheGiftsofSolitude. Please purchase, enjoy, and share the love!