Motivational tips for making the most out of life under lockdown — by boosting productivity or building character — can often do more to harm than help. This kind of advice tends to minimize if not erase the mounting trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, and makes people feel worse about themselves for falling short of some imagined standard (of self-discipline, creative output, good parenting, etc.). Our capacity for solitude is one such benchmark: often invoked, rarely examined, and easily internalized as yet another resource on which we have failed to capitalize.
Here I want to consider another way of envisioning the risks and possibilities of solitude. According to this alternate view, our ability to be alone, rather than some entrepreneurial knack for profiting from isolation, free from dependence (or dependents, as beleaguered parents fantasize), develops most fully from our trust in others.
Risks and possibilities of solitude
The infant encounters both solitude and desire in depending on his mother’s care. Though he sometimes waits and wants (and wails), she eventually arrives to attend to him. In the infant’s experience, mother is a “reliable but ultimately elusive object that can appease but never finally satisfy him.” Provided she is sufficiently attentive, he gradually learns that he will survive the intensity of his emotions and impulses until mother comes to meet his needs. In this manner, he risks being entrusted to what pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott calls the mother’s “holding environment.”
The five-year-old first attempting to ride a bicycle repeats this risk in a modified form. Standing with her feet planted on the ground, she feels fully and completely in control. She fears that she will be powerless once the bike starts in motion. But if she does not let go of herself, so to speak, she will not learn how to ride. By experimenting with pedaling and steering, the child finds it possible to entrust herself to the momentum of the bicycle. And in letting go, she not only picks up cycling; she realizes that the object beyond her control can be reliable all the same.
More than anyone, perhaps, the typical adolescent embodies the risk-taking and making required to find a hospitable solitude. Teenage experiments with styles, relationships, and substances, among other things, serve in part as an exploration of self-sufficiency, as an education into which perils one might survive in the absence of parental care. This experimentation also helps the adolescent to establish the reality and value of her objects (e.g., her body, friends, political ideals) by endangering them in some way. So the adolescent distinguishes herself and develops her capacity for solitude through an art of noncompliance. By developing a repertoire of risks, she also enhances her capacities for care and concern.
The time of our lives
As adults, solitude evokes in us some of the feelings and moods we encounter during our childhood and adolescent adventures in being on our own. Consider boredom. In Adam Phillips’s provocative formulation, “boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time?” Boredom unsettles our easy assurance that we know what we are waiting for, given that our usual pursuits offer direction and coherence (or distraction and busyness, at least).
Following Phillips, boredom might alert us to a peculiar risk and possibility of solitude in adulthood, namely, that we let our feelings develop “in the absence of an object — toward a possible object, as it were” and by doing so commit or entrust ourselves “to the inevitable elusiveness of that object.” Boredom, in other words, can lead us into the process of taking our time — or taking it back, in some measure — and thereby allowing ourselves to envision and articulate what we might want in the broader scheme of a life.
Taking the time to wait and want, then, might help us to engage the question of what to do with our time — not just as a matter of filling or killing time for, say, the next hour, but as an existential query about the “time of our lives.” “What should we do with our time?” is, in this respect, just another way of asking, “What makes life worth living?” Still, for this question to be more than academic, for any of us to have the freedom to “own” it, we need more than psychological courage. We also need access to a host of material resources and forms of education, as philosopher Martin Hägglund has recently elaborated.
Simply put, you only begin to take ownership of your time, your life, your solitude by acknowledging a debt to others. Solitude may mean physical distance, but it can also mean social solidarity.
You don’t have to go this alone.
*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now providing telemental health sessions.*
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