In Defense Of Solitude

August 10, 2020 / Eliza Pillsbury

Whether you want to call me asocial or just introverted, I need time alone.

I’ve thought to myself before that I’d make a good nun. Not because I’m particularly religious, but because I would love the excuse to avoid people. I could lock myself up in a convent and call it a day. Call myself holy.

I’ve always had an avoidance instinct that goes beyond introversion and deep into the realm of anxiety. My capacity for social interaction is very low, and my tolerance for bullshit is even lower. I don’t automatically dislike anyone (except for racists and people who don’t share the sidewalk), but being around people isn’t my natural state. Does this make me unnatural? Or just lonely?

Last summer, I needed to be alone. My best friend and I spent our first of four weeks in Europe together with tensions at an extreme high. Instead of wandering through the winding streets of Prague, taking perfectly candid pictures, I had to learn how to lance my own blisters with eyebrow tweezers and over-the-counter iodine solution. I silently begged the city for a drop of beauty that I could salvage from the vast distance between my expectations and my reality. Whether by coincidence or fate, we found the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia.

Most of the convent had been converted to an exhibition space for the National Gallery of Prague, but there were still remnants of Gothic architecture from the 13th century. I sat in the nave and wrote this in my journal:

“Agnes seems like a woman who knew what she wanted (“something higher”) and worked hard to get it and preserve it. And now, a young woman passing through Prague can sit in this space, across from where the saint’s grave might be, and feel some of the same sacred bravery. Like finding a place to breathe.” 

I started doing some research on this feeling when I got home. In the same way that asexuality is a lack of interest in or desire for sexual interaction, I wondered if there was such a thing as “asociality.” A similar scientific concept is called social anhedonia, or a deficiency in one’s innate need to belong. But I don’t think I’m disordered or deficient. Perhaps I’ve been disappointed too many times to believe that belonging is a foundation of human nature, but disappointment isn’t a deficiency.

I’ve thought a lot about loneliness in this first year living on my own. Fear of missing out takes on new meaning when your friends are hanging out without you for the third time in a week, and you don’t have anything else to do but sit on a shitty dormitory mattress in a room that you share with a stranger. It’s the same feeling that I had last summer when I didn’t speak a single word of Czech: Communication feels not just difficult, but impossible. When I’m lonely, I find that I’m disappointed by the impossibility of communication.

I see loneliness and solitude as two very different things. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is beautiful, even in the absence of communication or communion with others. I used to conflate the two, thinking that being alone must be a painful experience, but solitude doesn’t need to be shameful, despite the societal pressure to avoid it. I’m learning to distinguish my emotions from those conferred upon me.

Perhaps there’s a disconnect between who I am with others and who I am by myself. My true self. I’m no longer consumed with evaluating my physical appearance or personal presence, using those around me as measuring sticks for my shortcomings. I can redirect this useless, scrutinous energy toward what fulfills me, including self-evaluation that is tempered with kindness instead of insecurity.

I need the opportunity to reflect on who it is that I become when I’m trying to impress other people, so that I can re-enter the world with a stronger sense of self — one that brings my public and private selves closer together. I can only do this alone.

Still, sometimes I resist being alone because reflection is too uncomfortable. It’s shocking to see myself for who I truly am. It’s like the first time I look in the mirror after waking up from a night of little sleep: my ugliest, most unglamorous self. I have to understand and, eventually, embrace that version of myself — the one with puffy eyes, unruly hair, and a short fuse. It’s difficult, especially after falling in love with the FaceTuned truth, which isn’t actually true to myself at all.

As much as I might dream of scuttling away to my own little hermitage, we live in a pinball machine world, in which collision is random but impossible to avoid. Even the hermit requires relationships, if only indirectly.

And as hard as I try to hide behind my insecurities, the truest human connections come from seeing and letting myself be seen. Not just by the ghosts of Bohemian saints, but by my fellow travelers. We, the weary, the wanderers and wonderers, who seek “something higher,” but haven’t found it yet. ■

by: Eliza Pillsbury

layout: Sydney Bui

photographer: Kim Pagmata

stylist: Alex Cao

hmua: Zimei Chen

model: Megan Bennett

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