Guest Post by Louise Sundararajan
[Bella’s intro: Last month, I wrote two posts about my favorite chapter from the new Handbook of Solitude, “Experiences of Solitude,” by James Averill and Louise Sundararajan. The posts were “6 psychological insights about solitude” and “20 varieties of solitude;” judging from the page views, readers seemed to greatly appreciate the topic. One reader, Alan, had an important observation: “I found it interesting that they included “intimacy”, I would never have thought of that as being a quality of solitude.” How can intimacy be a quality of solitude? I asked one of the chapter co-authors, Louise Sundararajan, if she would write a guest post on the topic, and I am delighted that she agreed. Thanks, Louise! Below is what she wrote. At the end, you can read more about her.]
Alone Together: Intimacy in Solitude
Guest Post by Louise Sundararajan
Solitude is a choice, write Averill and Sundararajan (2014). But this claim poses a counter intuitive problem, for it seems to go against the grain of our deeply innate social needs. Social living is one of the major biological adaptations of the human species. During hominine evolution, spanning roughly six million years, the solitary individual would not have survived for long. Natural selection has therefore provided us with an inborn aversion to being alone — the experience of loneliness.
Why, then, would any decent human being choose to be alone? This question stems from a false dichotomy between solitude and community, an assumption which posits that the self cannot be relational without community, such that individuals who choose to be alone are either perverted enough to have no need for social relations, or are doomed to eternal loneliness, since their intimacy needs can never be satisfied in solitude.
Solution to this puzzle, according to Averill and Sundararajan (2014), lies in the realization that there is something paradoxical about solitude, namely that it is profoundly relational–we are not alone after all, not even in solitude. Empirical support for this claim comes from loneliness studies. Epley, Akalis, Waytz, and Cacioppo (2008) found that lonely participants, in comparison to non-lonely ones, gave higher anthropomorphic ratings to nonhuman objects such as gadgets, gods, and pets. But wait, ratings based on anthropomorphism? That implies faulty thinking. Jaffe (2008) explains: “Many isolated people, unable to reach out to others, reach out instead to objects. . . . lonely participants appeared to fill the void of human connection with inanimate ones” (p. 16). The researchers (Epley, et al., 2008) chimed in: “Lonely people cannot make themselves a world, of course,” they concluded, “but they can make themselves a mindful gadget, a thoughtful pet, or a god to populate that world” (cited in Jaffe, 2008, p. 16). One may detect here an element of bad faith, which, while granting the possibility for intimacy needs to be met when alone, casts doubt on the validity of this experience.
To get a deeper understanding of this bad faith concerning relationship in solitude, let me adumbrate two different views of the self: According to Ken Gergen (2009), humans are relational to the very core of their being. Likewise, the Chinese believe that the self is inextricably connected to the rest of the cosmos: “According to Confucian teaching, a mutual attraction of things for each other functions at all levels of reality as the interior binding force of the cosmic, social, and personal life” (Berry, 2003, p. 96). In sharp contrast is the atomic self in the West which posits that the self can be relational sometimes, but not necessarily so outside the social context. Thus social isolation can be relatively more devastating in individualistic societies, since it threatens to undermine the relational possibilities for the atomic self.
Averill and Sundararajan (2014) argue that antidote to the false dichotomies and bad faith about relationships in solitude can be found in the relational self (Gergen, 2009). On this account, solitude is an occasion in which we can fulfill the relational needs of the self—by having choices in the company we keep. In everyday social living we have company, but not always the company we prefer to have. In solitude, we have the opportunity to be picky, or in the words of Sayre (1978): “One flees society to create the true Society” (p. 20). Here are a few possible choices for intimacy in solitude:
- Yourself: If you like yourself enough, you might consider the practice of mindfulness, which, as Siegel (2009) points out, is “a relational process where you become your own best friend” (p. 145).
- Nature: One tried and true recipe of intimacy is to swap social affiliations with bonding with Nature. Consider the poet Li Po’s mutual gazing with the mountain:
Never tired of looking at each other—
Only the Ching-t’ing Mountain and me. (Liu & Lo, 1975, p. 110)
In addition, Averill and Sundararajan (2014) offer many varieties of intimacy in social isolation.
My favorites are reminiscence and longing—the former focuses on the presence of the absent companion in memory; the latter the absence of the person missed.
- For reminiscence, my favorite time alone is to sit in a quiet place with a cup of tea in hand, getting lost in thoughts about my mother who passed away a while ago.
- Lastly, longing is the celebration of an intimacy steeped in absence. Consider the following lines of a Tang poet:
My dear friend, you must be still up?
For those who enjoy the presence sheltered in absence, solitude is truly delightful.
Averill, J. R., & Sundararajan, L. (2014). Experiences of solitude: Issues of assessment, theory, and culture. In R.J. Coplan & J.C. Bowker (Eds.), The handbook of solitude: Psychological perspectives on social isolation, social withdrawal, and being alone (90-110). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
Berry, T. (2003). Affectivity in classical Confucian tradition. In W. M. Tu, & M. E. Tucker (Eds.), Confucian spirituality (pp. 96-112). New York: Crossroad.
Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A., Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and perceived agency in gadgets, gods, and greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19, 114-120.
Gergen, K. J. (2009). Relational being: Beyond self and community. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jaffe, E. (2008, December). Isolating the costs of loneliness. Observer, 21 (11), 14-17.
Liu, W. C., & Lo, I. Y. (Eds.). (1975). Sunflower Splendor/Three thousand years of Chinese poetry. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
Sayer, R. (1978). Solitude in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2009). Mindful awareness, mindsight, and neural integration. The Humanistic
Psychologist, 37, 137-158.
About the author:
Louise Sundararajan received her Ph.D. in History of Religions from Harvard University, and her Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. She chairs the Task Force on Indigenous Psychology, which is joined by over a hundred leaders in the field from around the globe. She served as past president of The International Society for the Study of Human Ideas on Ultimate Reality and Meaning, and also past president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology (Division 32 of the American Psychological Association). She is recipient of the Abraham Maslow Award for 2014, from Division 32 of APA. She is a Fellow of APA, and also a member of the Board of Directors for the International Society for Research on Emotions. She has published extensively on topics related to culture and emotions.