In Defence of Being Alone

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By Kristal Ng (16S07C)

Photo by Rafe Ang (16S07C)

To those who know me well, you would know that I spend an inordinate amount of time by myself.  It is no surprise to find me sitting outside my classroom reading a book, scribbling a few notes, or even just staring into space. Perhaps you find this behaviour bizarre, simply discounted as one of my many idiosyncrasies. Perhaps you’ve even stopped to sit beside me, confused as to just why I am here, all alone. To those who have, I have nothing but utmost gratitude (thank you!), but I also have a question: why is being alone a cause for concern? And why do you presume that I don’t want to be alone?

Granted, as Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal”. Evolution itself has shown that humans were meant to interact – our brains are larger than most mammals of comparable size due to the growth of the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that accommodates the extra functions of language and emotional regulation, empathy and social learning (the ability to transmit ideas and information). It is safe to say that we inherently crave company and thrive in communities. After all, it is through socialisation that we establish relationships as well as develop ourselves as individuals. 

However, someone who eats lunch by themselves, or goes out unaccompanied isn’t necessarily lonely or antisocial. We live in such an interconnected world: we are constantly bombarded by endless notifications of things to do and places to go, even after spending an entire day surrounded by people. Aren’t we entitled to simply not feel like making conversation, or socializing in general?

Perhaps the problem lies in us equating being alone with loneliness. Living in a social environment creates the constant pressure to connect with other people, and the absence of such is such a discomfiting feeling that some people would prefer the physical pain of an electric shock than spend time with themselves. This instinct to socialize is something that is cultivated from young. According to psychotherapist Ross Rosenberg, those with a healthy early childhood felt secure in their world and are thus more comfortable opening up to other people. On the contrary, children without that experience develop coping techniques – the ability to self-soothe – and find comfort in being alone instead. Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult to find space to be alone. Most of the time, the sight of a solitary figure is impetus enough to go up and offer a hand, or a listening ear. In the vein of doing unto others what we want them to do unto us, seeing a person alone and extending a conversation is more than offering mere pleasantry, it is offering rescue.

That being said, it is important to differentiate loneliness from being alone. The former is a feeling of isolation that results from loss, separation or unreciprocated affection. Aloneness on the other hand, is finding freedom in that same isolation, a joy found in being unapologetically yourself. To me, spending time alone is not more than a defense mechanism, but a healthy habit that that I consciously try to cultivate.

Being alone gives our brain a break.  Letting our brain switch off after a long stretch of being “onz” frees us from distractions, and gives ourselves the chance to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand. Completing your math Vectors tutorial or doing up Ionic Equilibria notes gets done a lot faster without having to be conscious of the person beside us. After all, there is simply no need to have company when doing work. Solitude and silence should be a precious thing especially in the cacophony of this world – not something we fashion our lives trying to evade, but something to embrace.

Being alone helps us get in tune with ourselves. The fact that I defined myself by the relationships I had used to be something I struggled with- how competent was I as a daughter, as a student, as a friend? I saw myself as only the roles I played in other people’s lives, and how big a part I played in them, measuring my importance in how much they acknowledged and needed me. By taking time out to be with myself, I learned to recognise other qualities in myself that didn’t come up in the company of others and acknowledge the accomplishments that I had achieved on my own.

It also gives us the freedom to do the things we really want to do. Researchers Christopher Long and James Averill characterise solitude as “a state characterized by disengagement from the immediate demands of other people – a state of reduced social inhibition and increased freedom to select one’s mental and physical activities”. Truth be told, taking other people’s opinions into consideration or making compromises to cater to the whole group can be taxing on our emotional and cognitive resources. Taking time to be alone frees up the mental capacity to listen to our own long-term needs, finding satisfaction in simply doing what we know we want to do.

Being alone helps us practise mindfulness. Perhaps some of us might remember the assembly talk by Mr Chan earlier this year about the importance of being alone. What made the greatest impression on me was one key idea, that we should “spend time with yourself, not spend time by yourself”. It is not about cutting yourself off from the world, but carving your own little space in it. Making a choice to be alone is deliberately allowing yourself to step back and take stock of your current thoughts, emotions and surroundings. Many of our decisions come about unconsciously, so being able to pay full attention to what we are thinking and examine just what sets off this thought process and why, enables us to gain a greater consciousness of the way we do things, and how it can be improved on. As we mature into self-aware and well-rounded individuals, it is imperative that we take time to reflect about our own personal growth, if not for our own personal development, then perhaps for our future university admissions. And what better way to do that than in our very own quiet space?

After all, we mustn’t forget the second part of Aristotle’s quote: “…an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” Maybe, just maybe, by taking more time to be alone, we can transcend the part of ourselves that make us mere humans, and transform into a truly enlightened version of ourselves – and wouldn’t that be a miracle in itself?

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3 thoughts on “In Defence of Being Alone”

  1. Such great thought put into the act of choosing to be alone at times! You’d be glad to know that despite the seeming lack of open acknowledgement of the benefits of being alone with oneself (for fear of being cast as the antisocial or friendless type), it is indeed a soul stretching and will strengthening behaviour. All the best in the final year of JC, I hope that choosing to be alone when you wish to will serve you well as you prepare for the exams and life ahead!

  2. This is great! It’s clean, concise and resonates with how a lot of extroverted introverts feel, the pressing need to interact prompts us to seek alone time when we can find it. The points generated are great, examples spectacular.

    If there’s anything that could better this piece it would be the lending of your personal voice, to have a deeper emotional investment in the piece via metaphor and anecdotal attachment. This would give your piece a twist that is far beyond the requirements of a GP paper, but given the personal nature of the concern it is perhaps something to consider for future write ups! You can read some posts from thought catalog purely for the style (the articles there cannot match the intellectual finesse of yours) or prance over to the New Yorker, where both style and content is exquisite. The articles there can act as a guide for you to further question and challenge your abilities. It’s the same as being alone, your friends may not be there to disturb you, but there’s this pressing presence of yourself that challenges you to be a better person, a better writer.

    So spend more time alone, pushing the boundaries of thought and self. Strange but great things will happen!

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