The amazing Alain Du Botton argues that it is not possible for any of us to be truly sane. All of us are burdened in some way by psychological harms. The most caring and well meaning of parents will still bequeath us with some kind of baggage, if only through the impact of managing their own and the world will add to that as we survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Horrors and heartbreaks will come to the most blessed of lives. No one is safe. No one is sane. The best we can aim for, he says, is to be ‘sanely insane’. By this, he means, that we should be self aware enough to help others, with humour and charm, to navigate the mine field of our fractured selves without losing a limb in the process.
In order to achieve this, we need help, lots of help. I agree with him. I honestly believe that philosophy, psychology, politics and ethics should be on the curriculum at every school. Just as important as geography, history and math. To understand and to cherish the complex beast that is a human being. While we appear to be open to new ideas about mental and as well as physical wellness, we are uncomfortable to really sit with these notions particularly when it comes to the darker and more challenging sides of our personalities and emotional misadventures.
In order to achieve this, along side of help, I think we need to have the space and the liberty to be alone. Some people might need more than others, some might struggle with it at all, but solitude is a right that we should all claim every once in a while. The less we get, often, the less we know what to do with it and when you don’t know how to be alone, when you are defined so much by others that you don’t even know who you are when you’re alone, you are drifting further from the kind of self-knowledge that will allow you to be ‘sanely insane’.
I used to find it easy to be alone. Often preferred it in fact. The press of others and their emotions and expectations. The friction caused by differing desires and needs could be a little overwhelming to me at times. Alone was where I found peace. After years of a stressful job, I elected to start working as a ghost writer and I would spend hours and hours alone. My husband often worried about it. But I was happy. I was at peace. If I wasn’t working, I would read, bake bread and go out walking for hours with a camera. I had no specific need to be around other people. You can’t do it all the time, obviously, we are social animals and isolation can drive you just as crazy as other humans, but being alone can be deeply restorative and is often the key to getting to grips with whatever it is that ails you.
After my children were born, I was seldom alone and, when I was, the tasks I was required to perform overwhelmed every minute. We went through some rough months and years where one drama followed another, our fathers died, my mother alcoholism worsened along with her falls until we moved her in, multiple house moves, covid. I lost the capacity to know how to be by myself. A kind of mania set in. I was so desperate to make the most of being alone, yet so used to being constantly busy and constantly stimulated, I didn’t know how to use and to appreciate that precious time. I had learned to be defined solely by my usefulness to others. I needed constant stimulation, constant validation. I was less calm than I ever recall being before, riven by anxiety. Constantly in need of something. I had no peace.
It has taken months of being alone while my children are at school. Months of forcing myself to stop, watch a movie, eat some f***ing carbohydrates, dare to gain a little weight, to remember what it feels like to be me. I know who I am when I’m alone now. I can’t tell you how many emotions and traumas have come up and out over the last few months. All of which I have talked through with a therapist. The work isn’t done yet either. I need to have some long conversations with my shadow self and I am yet to allow myself to fully grieve for my father. All that will take time. Time alone.
I can tell you how many passions have reawakened. A love of literature and psychology, a desire for learning and emotional and spiritual growth. Have you read any Rainer Maria Rilke? You really should. And Somerset Maughn. I have Carl Jung and Anais Nin on my night stand stand and Kahil Gibran on my wish list. Oh the books I am buying! And the capacity to focus on my passions rather than approaching life with a splatter gun of enthusiasm and no capacity to think or breathe deeply. I, finally, have peace. And it shows, the people I work with now say I bring calm with me.
If being alone frightens you, you need to face that fear. If you don’t know who you are when you’re alone, you need to find out. If being alone fills you with a manic need to fill that time, you need to slow down and prioritise yourself. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it will be worth it. Like all good things. To heal and know yourself, you need help, help and to be alone.