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On Solitude (1)

By Henry Roberts

On Solitude

“For me, thinking seems to act at times as a defense mechanism, a way of avoiding some feeling, or a way of not looking at the situation I am in. I believe this is especially true in social situations, where I lead with my head. My trouble is I analyze life instead of live it.”

-Hugh Pranther, “Notes to Myself”

“Fishing for a good time starts with throwing in your line.”

-Tom Waits

1

When I was nineteen I travelled to Lisbon on my own. It was January, the temperature never seemed to make up its mind, and most of the time was spent by myself. What with St Andrews term dates being so out of sync with English universities, I found myself alone for the final weeks of the Christmas holidays in January, the rest of my friends from home having returned to their studies across the country. I had told friends in St Andrews the previous term that I was contemplating a trip somewhere, and I was advised to go on various flight comparison sights. I soon found that I could get flights to Portugal’s capital for just over £20 each way. I had heard good things about the city, and it seemed to be, despite its long (and evident) history, an up-and-coming place by way of youthful activity. I thought three days there on my own would be just the ticket.

It was my first time abroad alone. I had spent three weeks of the previous summer inter-railing with a good friend from high school, but having spent most days by myself, I realised not only my capability of travelling alone, but also my actual enjoyment of it. Spending days wandering through Europe’s cities, I found myself perfectly content with my thoughts, happily distracted whenever I got lost or was particularly moved by that day’s activity or spectacle. Though I met up with my friend for dinner each evening, for three weeks I explored foreign cities- all of them new to me- entirely by myself. I figured three days in another one would be a breeze.

However, there were other motives behind my wanting to travel unaccompanied. Apart from my simple lack-of-objection to travelling alone, I also wanted to see simply if I could travel alone, even briefly. It was a challenge to myself, and one I would have fun passing. But, largely, I was attracted to the idea of the lonesome traveller. It was an image I aspired to. I had in my head the image of the romantic nomad, a wanderer, too strong and too cool for long-term human relationships, travelling from place to place just long enough to learn the ways of the land and its people before travelling onwards, elsewhere, lest real emotions seep into this sheltered soul! (I don’t think the real figure of this fantasy would have his dad drive him to the airport.) Those who know me even slightly will not recognise a slither of myself in this image. (Although they’d probably acknowledge the romantic imaginings and self-gratifying ego-rubbing of the whole thing.)

I arrived and navigated my way out of the airport, across the underground labyrinth and through the city’s winding, steep streets until finally finding and checking into my hostel. All the time, naturally, on my own. It’s tempting to turn this three-day long trip into some long-winded metaphor on solitude and loneliness. To describe in forlorn detail my walking aimlessly up and down the bourgeois and graffiti-covered streets, getting lost in cobbled back alleys at night, floating through multi-room art galleries, admiring art depicting love and companionship, all awhile alone. And how miserable I was and how I just had to stop dead in my tracks on one of the many walks and break down crying in a revelatory experience where I learn that life is only lived when shared. This didn’t happen. I did indeed wander aimlessly through streets and galleries and castles and had a wonderfully pleasant time. But, at the same time, it wasn’t a life changing experience because it couldn’t be. It was slow and agreeable and leisurely, but that was all. Dining on my own was a little strange, but in an odd way gratifying. The rest of the time I was perfectly content on my own. Not joyful, or ecstatic, or elated- just contented.

I made some friends in the hostel where I stayed to whom I have not spoken since. I walked to Alfama; rode an old-fashioned tram to Belém. I took a day trip out to Sintra. My favourite moment, however, the moment I would want to relive the most, was listening to a Fado singer at midnight. Unlike many singers in the city, this one was a professional. With two musicians at her side, she somehow bellowed her words forcefully yet with the fragility with which one would handle expensive porcelain plates. That was my favourite part of the trip. Listening to those mournful, melancholic tones of lonely women, singing songs about their absent husbands, off at sea to fight wars of men, leaving them behind, alone.

2

It is, of course, common parlance and cliché, but one should never forget the distinction between solitude and loneliness. (I mention the platitude simply because so many do indeed forget, or, rather, so many seem not to even be aware of any distinction between the two.) Loneliness, as we all know against our will, is pain. Solitude should be sought. However, there are two chief dangers regarding solitude. One is its common confusion with loneliness. Loneliness is a painful experience (and one with a social stigma attached to it), and so those who do not realise any distinction between solitude and loneliness avoid the latter, thereby depriving themselves of the former. They do so like a child avoiding a hot stove after being burnt. In doing this, they thereby deny themselves a necessary human occupation, fearing both the internal and external consequences of loneliness. The second danger regarding solitude concerns that other kind of person: the kind of person who spends too much time on their own, who enjoys it, is more than comfortable with it, who, to a certain extent, romanticises it. They thus allow their time alone, which they call solitude, to drift into the deeper, darker waters of loneliness, often without them realising. By the time they comprehend that what they are feeling is indeed an unwanted feeling of loneliness, it’s too late to swim back to safer shores. Or so it feels. They spend time by themselves in the name of a dignified solitude, and dismiss the painful feelings this can bring about as mere anomalies beyond their control and not their fault. They keep their hands on the stove.

Whilst I was at sixth form, I was known, particularly in my final year, for taking walks. During free hours when I didn’t have an essay to write (or simply could not be bothered with such a task), I would quite often walk through town towards the castle grounds, circling the park past the bowling green and war memorial before walking back to school. I assured my befuddled friends that I did so in the hopes of curing my insomnia, or at least to help the matter. This was, to an extent, true. Another reason was because I enjoyed the image of myself I hoped it would help assemble. (Wandering Nomad Spotted Past Clitheroe Castle.) However, the primary reason was because I enjoyed it. Before setting off, I always enquired if anyone wished to join me. Quite often, a particular friend would take me up on this offer. Together we would stroll and talk in a relaxed and unhurried manner, exchange stories and fears, and laugh wonderfully. Those really were the most wonderful walks. If no one wished to join me, I walked alone. And I did so happily, stopping every so often to sit on a bench and people watch. It was a great way to both clear my head and fill it. It distracted me from my work and social obligations, and often led to revelatory approaches towards them. (As revelatory as a seventeen-year-old slacker could think, however. I was always both a slow and self-aggrandizing one.) Looking back, those walks lasting for an hour at a time are among my happiest memories of sixth form. They remain so because they are abundant, despite naturally merging into a collective one in my brain, with the odd peculiarity sticking out. The walks were not every day, but a few times a week. Most free periods I spent working or with friends. I had friends I left behind the canteen, who I knew would be there when I got back. Sometimes I listened to music. Whenever I walked with a friend, it was a blissful experience. When I was on my own, I was content. The conversations in my head were as lively and as indulging as the debates we had in Politics Society. The walks were their own task; the destination was in the route. Gregariousness and solitude were not one of the same, but both brought me a different but equally potent joy.

I now think of a walk on a beach. That beach those Chariots of Fire boys ran on, to be more precise. It’s windy. The sea looks grey, the water cold. Not like a postcard at all. The sharp wind is attacking the side of my face, I have to turn away and squint. My hands are in my pockets, my shoulders up to my ears. The water really does look dark and deep and angry. I’m alone on this walk. I didn’t ask anybody to join me, however. The sky is dark; the clouds grey and bulbous (this is Scotland, after all). It’s getting on a bit. That essay is sitting on my desk, still in its note-like embryonic form. My face is starting to go numb. My cheeks must be red, and my nose. My hands hurt. I should probably turn back now.

3

There are, naturally, internal and external reasons for feelings of loneliness, as there are for everything else. Sometimes the lines between external and internal are blurred. I feel this is strongly the case regarding social media.

Our generation is described as “digitally native”. Unlike our “immigrant” parents, we are “digital natives”, able to understand and navigate the technological realm as though we have hundreds of generations of techno-fluent evolution behind us. But has technology, in particular social media, made us into natives of our own individual islands? Whereas our parents were huddled onto a single island, ours is a generation spread out, each on his own unique island, each island connected by invisible wires and fibre cables. Each man on his own island, alone.

There has been endless discussion of varying quality regarding the detrimental effects social media has on young people in particular. How people only post the good things in their life, filtered to an almost unreal degree, either linguistically or visually, to create the impression that only good things happen to that person, and so everybody else, who naturally feel the entire spectrum of human emotion each and every day, including, of course, nothingness, feel diminished and lessened in comparison. Or, alternatively, how strange it is that some people choose to go public repeatedly with all the bad things that are going on in their lives, things most people would regard as private. How the distinction between public and private is getting more and more diminished each and every day. Another common thought, though a particular perplexing one: our parents were fearful of state cameras in every location, knowing where they were at all times, watching their every move; our generation can’t go anywhere without sharing a picture or post, their whereabouts in the public domain, accessible to any government at any time.

However, this does not tell us anything about the effect social media has on the users themselves. How they interact with the world and the people in it. Has social media really made us more selfish? Do we really see people in two-dimensions: comprised solely of pictures, comments, confessions- all in code, not flesh and blood? Where a person can be swiped left or right after careful ‘consideration’ of their character. What is more important: the way social media makes us consider other people, or the way it makes us consider ourselves? Did it stem from a pre-digital age, or has this fundamentally altered our conception of social activity in a rapid period of time? If pictures and comments don’t really mean anything other than to satisfy one’s own ego, why then should real interaction be any different?

Neurologists say that in order to feel empathy, it’s always much more effective to see a face in person rather than on a screen. This is why Vittorio Gallese said that one feels greater empathy for the ‘real’ people one sees onstage in the theatre rather than those seen onscreen in the cinema, whether or not that’s true. In terms of having a real conversation, where two people can read the contours of each other’s faces, interpret their emotions, and respond intuitively- feel any sort of empathy- the conversation is much more genuine when it takes place in person, rather than through computer systems. With modern-day computers, we have more opportunities for more conversations with a greater number of people than anyone else in human history. So why do so many of us, particularly young people, feel so alone?

It seems that in today’s faux-social, hyper-interactive, techno-ruling, social media-obsessive, largely artificial world, that people do not know how to be alone. Or, rather, they do not know that it is okay to be alone. It is good to be alone. Healthy. Necessary. This faux-sociality I mentioned that describes the world has, naturally, to do with the increased role technology has come to play in our lives. The world is suffering from false socialness. Is it enough to merit the description anti-social? In many cases- for people much healthier than myself- probably not. But in my case, describing social media as anti-social is not an inaccurate description.

Here I’m not just talking about the parties and social functions I find myself at where I don’t know anybody and so find myself stood in the corner staring at my phone screen, sometimes not even turned on but usually just scrolling vacuously through social media, choosing to be that guy who spends time at parties looking at his phone rather than the guy who just stands around at parties doing nothing. In these cases, staring at a phone is a paradoxical necessity. I do it because I am not talking to anyone despite wanting to, and in doing so am recusing myself from potential genuine social engagement for fear of looking like a weirdo just standing there not doing anything and thereby losing all hope of social engagement altogether. Invitations to parties and events rarely come my way, and so when they do I feel obliged to attend. Who am I to turn down social plans? In most cases it’s not a real invitation: a friend of a friend informed me of it, or I was invited out of congeniality and nothing else. Yet I find myself forcing myself to go, knowing that if I didn’t I’d be sat in my room beating myself up over the amazing, wonderful time being had at such and such party I am not currently attending, and how stupid I am for not going, and how my loneliness was my own fault and how I am a creature of my own making and one I full-heartedly deserve.

No, I’m not just talking about this as social media being anti-social. Like television for the generation before us, computers, and social media in particular, offer a way to get us out of the world. More importantly, they offer a way out of our own heads. Sometimes this is necessary. Long days of schooling, employment, traffic, demands, deadlines, stresses; it all takes its toll, and it’s healthy to release this somehow through relaxation that requires little or no critical, cognitive or emotional engagement. Such is why so much television is still popular with the masses: it’s easy. It requires no effort. It gives little back in return because it asks for little from us. Social media, however, gives us little back but asks a lot from us. Rather, it demands it. And its demands only add to the stresses of our days, rather than relieving them.

I, of course, am no exception to this. I have on my phone Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and I find myself constantly touching the lit-up screen in any spare or not-spare moment, often without even realising I’m doing it. So often, even, that after closing down the app, I’ll see the home screen of app icons and re-tap the very same icon I had just closed, not even realising what I am doing, simply out of habit of seeing a Facebook symbol and not being inside. And, like so many others, with auto-remembered passwords, it’s only too easy to go in and out without even realising it; in and out in and out so often that we are never really out. We are always logged in.

And, once inside, I find myself checking the pages of friends to see, not what they have been up to, but if they have been up to anything. Or, more satisfying still, if they haven’t been up to anything at all. This latter menacing craving is not satisfied by lack of social media activity, but active social media participation attesting to their loneliness, their boredom, their mediocrity. Their not doing anything. Their fear of action. Their being just like me. Of course, this very rarely happens. And most often, due to the repetitive nature of my hawkish checking, their profiles are exactly the same as when I last checked. No tweets, no pictures, no updates. Which only leads to further paranoia that whilst I am sat here checking their online presence, all the while ignoring my ‘real world’ responsibilities or opportunities, their lack of social media presence can only mean that they are currently doing the essay that I am currently ignoring, or doing that athletic feat I am too afraid to try, or are with that special someone who is still anonymous to me because I have not even spoken to her despite her being at the forefront of my mind. Even so, my social media activity- my output- is minimal, meaning that it is hypothetically possible that all my friends are engaged in the exact same sordid compulsions that I am, fearful that I am spending my time wisely, and not looking at a screen like an addict at a much-desired substance. But somehow I feel that that’s not the case. The comparison of a sustained sabbatical from one’s phone to a ‘cleanse’ is an apt one, for whenever I’m in one of my lowly states and find myself checking and checking and checking social media, I feel dirty and greasy and ashamed.

And the problems aren’t just present online. In the real world, I have found myself unable to think outside the context of social media, as though I have been conditioned to think within this external framework since birth, when really Facebook came to my attention at around age twelve. Now, whenever I am at a social occasion where I look good, or am with people I am smug to be with, I think not so much how the limited people in this space are currently perceiving me (although, naturally, that thought is never not there), but rather how I can mould the situation to a positive perception of me and my lifestyle and my choices to the seemingly unlimited number of people out there. At a safe distance, in the realm of social media.

Take two examples from my time at St Andrews. I was lucky enough to attend talks by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amélie and other films, and Larry Sanders, brother of then-Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders during his primary campaign, in my first and second years respectively. Both talks were wonderful. I looked forward to them, I enjoyed them immensely as they were happening, and I look back on them fondly. However, during each talk I had a nagging irritation in my brain. How was I to frame this linguistically in 140 characters? How was I to let people know of this event, the therefore privileged position I must be in in order to be at said event, and what I have learnt from said event and how it relates to real world problems in so terse a communique. I was also fighting with myself whether or not a picture with the guests of honour would be possible. Compromise inner-shyness and social etiquette for immortal proof not only of my being there, but of my favoured position of being next to these honoured people, sharing their time and space, as if it were their choice, with my acute wisdom, thoughts and presence. How lucky we both of us are in that picture!

In both cases, I did get a picture. And in both cases, I shared on social media with some self-congratulatory post about how lucky I was and what a good time I had had. I was, of course, undeniably lucky. They were just two of the many speakers I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to in St Andrews, and I’ll surely get the chance to listen to more. And I had indeed had a good time in both cases. Brilliant times, in fact. These two facts were irrefutable and true. However, part of my actual experience- the one I was testifying to being oh so wonderful and nothing but wonderful in my social media post- was partly compromised as I was composing such a linguistic structure in my head all through the talk. Even before the “brilliant” talk was over (and confirmed to be brilliant), I had designated the evening as “brilliant” in my head. It was destined. I was listening to a famous person, I wanted people to know. But nobody really cares about a boring speech, or an awkward conversation or, worst of all, a disappointing experience. Who could be jealous of that?

The simple remedy to both problems- the constant checking of friends’ accounts and the compromised enjoyment of real experiences- seems overtly self-evident. Simply delete these toxic apps from your phone. Better still, why not delete your accounts all together? Cut off the problem at its source. (And spare yourself the embarrassment of early-adolescent photos of you during your ‘awkward stage’ being public.)

But denying oneself social media, even for a short period of time, is to recuse oneself not just from vacuous posts and gratuitous content, but from necessary social structures of today’s world. Particularly in universities, extra-curricular activities are arranged via Facebook: timetables scheduled; meetings and rehearsals organised; progression uploaded and those who need to be in the know can thus be duly updated. To recuse oneself from this is to potentially recuse oneself from necessary engagement in extra-curricular activity which is becoming more and more necessary in today’s experience-heavy, soft skilled employment market. There are external reasons that draw us to our phone screens.

As well as this, there’s also the issue of messaging. Since, unlike texts, messaging via the internet is free, people are more and more talking via the apps on phones rather than on the phones themselves. Group dates are arranged, information is learnt, gossip is exchanged. The Fear of Missing Out- ‘FOMO’- has long been associated with social media; people’s constant posts of only the good things in their lives, filtered to an unreal perfection, causing people to fear that life is happening elsewhere. However, there is a real legitimacy to this fear in terms of social media’s most social of functions: messaging. If one is not constantly checking for messages, one might be missing out on potential ‘real world’ social engagements. And if one is not constantly checking, the sense that there is not something being checked, nothing under the finger being swiped or glowing in an expectant eye, is all the more prominent. Surely, if one were determined enough, this feeling would eventually disappear and a feeling of normality would return to one’s day-to-day existence. But is this really necessary, let alone desired? Without a social media to check, there is a very real and legitimate fear of missing out. And without social media, one is left feeling saddened and alone.

With or without it, social media is a double-edged sword. Loneliness, in both cases, seems to be an end result.

However, for all the harm they cause and exaggerate, are we not making false villains out of these medias? These apps and websites are not, in and of themselves, really toxic. They do good in the world. Not treading far from their marketing slogans and desired brand image, these websites really do have the ability to connect long-lost friends, distanced by space; bring up-to-the-minute rolling news coverage, and allow people to keep a digital time capsule, accessible to a specific group of chosen people. As well as this, these services have been used to aid revolution, as in the Arab Spring, and help individual appeals reach mass audiences. For every tweet manipulated by the current U.S. President, a truth is also revealed.

So are we to blame, or the apps? Are the vacuous minds of millennials at fault, or are the over-reaching but short-sighted ambitions of the Baby Boomers who created them? I think it’s both and neither. In the current neoliberalist global structure, how can we expect those who can profit from mass sharing of these services, even to the detriment of our wellbeing, to recuse themselves from doing so? And in the current state of affairs where no social engagement can be arranged without use of technology, how can we blame ourselves for using them? When the fabric of our social life is at their mercy, who are we to refuse them in search of a ‘more perfect’ past?

However, that does not mean a free pass on critical thinking. We have been conditioned to believe that our activity with technology is normal, when only a brief conversation with our parents would reveal that it is not. Compared to the progression of human history, we are anything but normal. We are at the frontlines of our species’ development, just like every generation before us since the Industrial Revolution, but in a much different way.

Despite this, critical engagement with social media does not necessarily mean a cognitive path to enlightenment, culminating in one’s deletion of every single app on their phone and account on the web. I sit typing these words, still as confused as ever, with all accounts active, and all apps present and logged into. Rather, critical engagement need only mean questioning why we have these accounts, what we use them for, and what we wish to gain from them. Nobody would answer these questions with the answer: to feel and increase paranoia and anxiety. To feel further alone. A questioning into one’s social media habits should reveal the positive aspects of the websites that attracted us to them in the first place: a chance to keep our distanced friends up-to-date with what we are doing, and a change to update ourselves with what they’re doing as well. In short, a concerted effort against the fear of being forgotten. However, in reminding ourselves of these original aspirations, one should see how far one’s actual social media usage has drifted from such original intentions.

There are, naturally, variabilities. Some are healthy with their social media usage, much healthier than myself, and to those people I must seem desperate and pathetic and sad. And others are clearly much, much worse than I am, spending every waking second attached to a screen, informing the world of their every thought or action like their medical wellbeing depended on it. However, not wanting to appear holier-than-thou about it all, I must confess that this is an ongoing challenge, and one, on my darkest and loneliest days, I find myself losing. But still I believe that a critical engagement with social media need not result in a complete abandonment of their services, for such would be a complete abandonment of certain requirements of modern life. Rather, an examination of what we really want out of Twitter, Facebook and the like, and what we currently get from them should hopefully lead to a self-inflicted restriction and amendment of usage. In doing so, one hopes for healthier social interactions, and, ultimately, a lessening of painful loneliness, so often the symptom of self-inflicted solitude.

To be continued next week.

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