Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,
right solitude oils it.
Solitude is important to me for two personal reasons: I grew up as an only child, and I am the father of an only child, Elizabeth.
The arc of an only child’s experience is easy to trace. Solitude begins as a problem and grows into a necessity. The problem of solitude is that it is so easily transmuted into loneliness, boredom and isolation. This is wrong solitude. The necessity of solitude arises from an inability to turn off the “busyness” of other people.
These points will seem obvious to only children. We are the ones, for example, most likely to have imaginary friends who become involved in complex narratives of our own invention. This sort of thing is part of the only child’s solution to the “problem” of solitude, and it can easily ripen into the right solitude of serenity and psychological integration. I am stunned to learn that some “experts” have decided that the imagination necessary to dream up imaginary friends is somehow pathological! I doubt that any only children were consulted in making that determination.
I don’t remember much about my own imaginary friends, but Elizabeth had half a dozen or more, each with a unique personality and voice (she did the talking for all of them). She could play happily by herself for hours on end. As a fellow “only,” however, I put myself in the role of her advocate and protector whenever we were in large social settings because I knew what she was up against—the lack of effective mental filters that would allow her to focus on some things and ignore others.
It was hard-won wisdom, and for her sake I was glad I had it. Both of my parents grew up with siblings. They had, of necessity, developed the mental filters early in life and seemed to assume everyone was born with them. My mother had three sisters. My father had six sisters and a brother, all with loud voices. At family gatherings, I would quickly be overwhelmed by the level of activity and noise because I didn’t know how to ignore any conversation or activity. If someone was talking, I was listening. If something was happening, I felt drawn into it, even if it didn’t interest me. Again and again I would find myself trying to follow several conversations at once and keep track of what everyone was doing.
It was exhausting, and before long I would instinctively seek out a quiet corner. Non-participation, however, was never an option at these events. Invariably, one or more of my aunts would see me off by myself and try to pull me back into the middle of things. They called me “shy” and “stand-offish” and “spoiled.” It made me angry and hurt my feelings. It also failed to answer my most basic question: “Why can’t anybody ever shut up?”
I was an adult before I developed the necessary mental filters, but large groups can still wear me out. These days, of course, I can decide when I’ve had enough. At my best, I can take care of myself without seeming “shy” or “stand-offish” and without hurting anyone’s feelings. It is always a complex dance, but whatever I do I have simply aged out of the charge of being “spoiled.” I will never have to endure it again. That is quite simply the greatest blessing an only child can ever receive.