I did something stupid recently. I’m not saying that that in itself is newsworthy, mind you. I’m pretty sure nobody even noticed, but I felt the consequences of it keenly. But enough with the build-up. Here’s what I did:
I passed more than two weeks without taking a single day to be entirely alone.
If you’re like most people, then I can picture your expression just now. The world at large cannot understand why that should be a problem. I’ve encountered this communication failure more than once. For example: one of my friends is a classic extrovert. The phrase “human contact overload” makes him laugh. He has no idea at all what it means. None whatsoever.
You see, most people believe that being introverted and being shy are one and the same state of existence. It isn’t true. Shyness is nothing but uncertainty. More times than not, a person can get over uncertainty by sufficient effort to achieve acclimation. Once a shy person gets used to the situation, then there’s no reason left to be shy.
Introversion may look the same—showing the same reluctance to spend time in crowds, for instance—but the underlying basis is different. Extroverts often believe that one can “get over” being an introvert, just like one can “get over” shyness. I’d like to see them try to get over being an extrovert. “But there’s nothing wrong with being an extrovert!” As if there’s anything wrong with being the opposite.
Do you think that introverts walk through life with a thick shell about them, holding the world at arm’s-length? Wrong. Introverts walk about with their insides exposed to every injury the world can inflict. The only possible distance to which an introvert has recourse is solitude, and that is only a temporary and periodic remedy. One always must go back into the world, back to the barrage of reckless emotions and words that stab, sear, abrade, and pummel any soul too sensitive to deflect them.
I must admit, sensitive is a foul-tasting word for me. I’ve heard it so often spoken by people bragging about being thin-skinned (as if that’s a virtue) that I hate applying it to myself for any reason. An introvert just tends to be more aware of some things than an extrovert, and not in a good way. To be aware of what others are feeling, but unable to do anything about it or to shrug it off and go your own way, is a disadvantage to be sure. Emotion, to me, is like a residue. My own is difficult enough to keep within proper bounds. Then others add their emotions—mainly negative, note—and the weight just grows heavier with every passing hour spent in the world. Solitude is the warm bath that soaks away that persistent leaden residue and returns me to a state of equilibrium.
I believe that solitude is beneficial for more than über-introverts like me. (I don’t mean my own solitude, although I’m sure that others benefit from finding me on a more even keel afterward.) I promote solitude whenever I can, especially among my extroverted friends. It may seem odd, a definite oxymoron, this inviting of many people to solitude. I won’t claim that it’s an easy habit to develop. We in the Western world, for the most part, have lost the knack of it. If you try to sustain it as a lifestyle, people will look at you as an oddity—I speak from experience here. Some of them will even assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you are in some way defective because you don’t plunge headlong into every opportunity for companionship of every kind. So, if you worry about fitting in, don’t even think about attempting solitude. If your self-image depends on others’ approval, stay far away from quiet contemplation and time spent alone. But if you ever find the ceaseless crescendo of the world painful to your ears, there is no shame in making strategic withdrawals from time to time. On the contrary, there I find strength.
That’s why going two weeks without genuine solitude was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do. I know I’m weakened without my time spent alone. I know it, but I fall into a routine and don’t realize the danger until I’m beyond running on empty. My work suffers from the stress of “human contact overload.” My relationships suffer.
Solitude, banzai! Let’s hear it for silence! (Um… you know what I mean.)