• Solitude is not the same as loneliness. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It’s time to acknowledge that solitude is a complex, evolving state that’s worthy of the same status in our culture as our deepest relationships, writes Neha Kale.
Neha Kale

17 May 2016 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2019 - 1:44 PM

My all-time favourite painting is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The iconic image, which shows two men and a woman, each lost in their thoughts, in a stark, floodlit diner might be a defining portrait of urban loneliness (and a fixture of lounge rooms and laptop screens the world over).

But when I look at that scene I don’t see three figures trapped by their inability to connect with each either; I see people quietly owning their solitude, publicly inhabiting their private worlds.

When I saw Nighthawks at 26 at the Art Institute of Chicago, it was during one of the best times of my life. I was traveling solo through the United States, a trip littered with new friendships and chance adventures that, years later, have taken on the glitter of those strange moments during which reality eclipses illusion.

At the time, I was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne, where I could curl up with a book, uninterrupted and made decisions that weren’t based on someone else’s desires but on impulses and instincts that were unapologetically my own.

For as long as I can remember, I’d been the most content in my own company -- whether that meant wandering cities solo in my early 20s or spending days daydreaming alone as a child.

Contrary to a culture which tells us that solitude is the domain of singletons looking for love (Bridget Jones), careerist go-getters who swap intimacy for power (Sex and the City’s Samantha) or warriors on the road to spiritual redemption (Wild’s Cheryl Strayed), it struck me that time alone wasn’t always a conduit to something better. It bred a freedom, sense of possibility and potential for self-reflection that felt like its own prize.

When you’re by yourself, you can do exactly what you want, aren’t accountable to anyone and don’t have to keep up appearances. 

Scarlett Harris, a 27-year-old writer and blogger considers solitude a fundamental part of who she is.

“Although I have close friends, I’m a quintessential introvert and find that people really drain me,” says Harris, who often attends events solo and is temporarily relocating alone at the New York at the end of the year.

“When you’re by yourself, you can do exactly what you want, aren’t accountable to anyone and don’t have to keep up appearances. There’s no one else I’d rather spend time with.”

Shu-Ling Chua, a 25-year-old festival producer and writer who travelled alone to Stockholm for Eurovision, says some of her most memorable experiences happened travelling alone.

“The first time I did it, I met some incredible people and had some incredible conversations and I think for me, it’s about choice and freedom,” she says.

“I didn’t fit in at school because people would want to talk about lipstick and boys and I’d find that really boring. I ended up being a bit of a loner and that’s shaped who I am. My desire to spend time alone hasn’t really changed but because of it, I’m very self-aware.”

In the last few years, the perception that solitude is the province of outliers and hermits is starting to come undone.

A May 2015 New York Times article reported that 24 per cent of people travelled alone on their most recent leisure vacation and that today’s solitary traveller is just as likely to be partnered as they are to be single, giving rise to a wave of travel companies aimed at this growing demographic.

According to March 2015 research by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, single-person households are Australia’s fastest-growing housing segment, projected to jump by up to 64 per cent by 2036.

And the single woman is now America’s most powerful voter as Rebecca Traister argues in a February 2016 cover story in New York magazine.

But although our romantic relationships, and increasingly, our friendships are treated like living organisms -- subject to conflicts, moods and phases -- the fact that we’re identifying more strongly with solitude doesn’t mean that we endow it with the complexity it deserves.

Solitude can also be the product of destructive cycles and corrosive forces, much like a toxic relationship.

An October 2015 study by Aged and Community Services Australia found that the risk of loneliness in old age is higher among migrants, refugees, the same-sex attracted and people in rural or remote areas.

And March 2016 research ranked social isolation among the factors that contributed to cardiovascular disease in Indigenous people.

Choosing solitude when you have a loving partner or a coterie of friends to turn to can feel markedly different from being suddenly aware that you’re alone.

Choosing solitude when you have a loving partner or a coterie of friends to turn to can feel markedly different from being suddenly aware that you’re alone.

“On my last night of a trip to New York, I felt this overwhelming fear and I realised that there’s a difference between the solitude you choose and the type you don’t,” says Chua.

When I moved to Sydney by myself at the tail-end of my 20s, I remember sitting by myself, in tears, in a dark IKEA parking lot, the roaring planes overhead vacuuming solitude’s old possibilities.

It’s this spectre of loneliness that makes carving out time on your own when you’re in a happy relationship feel transgressive; it’s as if solitude is a state you can learn to live with rather than one that’s as profound or desirable as intimacy itself.

In The Lonely City, a masterful new book about loneliness, Olivia Laing suggests that the paintings of Edward Hopper are both “beautiful and frightening”, as if “what he saw was as interesting as it needed to be: worth the labour, the miserable effort of putting it down.”

Perhaps it’s time we accepted that solitude can be as complicated, terrifying and fulfilling as the relationships that define us and, despite its pitfalls, is deserving of the same respect.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @Neha_Kale

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