Angela Chen: Embracing solitude

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 6:38pm

As popular culture suggests, adolescence is a time that social lives are expected of us. With the rise of smartphones and social media, the daily flood of Snapchat stories and Instagram pictures imply more than ever that the best of times are had in groups — whether it be friends, families or even strangers.

The social taboo against being alone is understood since an early age. Those who are seen alone are labeled laughable and perceived as having neither friends nor something better to do (enter “when all two of your friends are busy” meme).

In high school, I was very much alone in this sense. As the result of a severe case of strict parents, I spent 90 percent of my free time isolated in my bedroom, my social life confined entirely to iMessage and Facebook messenger.

But in college, things are different. As I met more people and made more friends throughout my first year, I found myself increasingly accustomed to being with others in every area of my life — whether it be attending lecture, eating, studying or doing the bare minimum on a Sunday afternoon. Essentially, there is nothing stopping any of us from spending every waking (and non-waking) hour with company. We’re surrounded by people of the same age, walking in the same shoes and carrying the same social burdens. There’s really no excuse to be alone.

Thus, the social dynamic of this summer came as a shock to me. With the whole campus on a hiatus from its usual bustling energy and only a few select friends remaining on campus, there were no more classes to study for together, no student activities to summon a crowd, no dining hall to serve as a convenient meetup site. Many days, I had no choice but to be alone.

As summer went on, I became suddenly very aware of my lack of plans after work and on weekends, which both discomforted and disheartened me. While I was thankful for the time to relax from the chaos of the school year, I was unaccustomed to excessive free time and saw my lack of plans as a personal setback. As I lie in bed for hours on end watching “Friends” at an inconceivably rapid rate, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for myself. Every Snapchat story seemed to be an implicit jab at my own seclusion, the negative connotation of solitude manifesting itself as if on demand.

Amid it all, I was forgetting that solitude itself is harmless. Sick of meaningless self-pity, I finally asked myself: in a world without social expectations and stereotypes, what’s wrong with being alone? If there was no social media, no way of comparing my own life to others, would my solitude still seem so strange, so unacceptable?

Absolutely not, I thought. There is nothing wrong with being alone.

Of course, this is not to say that we should avoid social interaction altogether. While it’s always healthy to spend time with others, quality time alone should never be underrated.

Remember, there are two ways of being alone. The first is loneliness; my high-school self is a good example. I was averse to company, actively withdrawing from social situations due to personal insecurities and strained relationships. It was completely unhealthy and a problem I’m happy to leave in the past.

The second is solitude, a wholesome state of aloneness marked by peacefulness, privacy and comfort with oneself. And only when I learned to accept solitude was I able to recognize its value.

In a sense, solitude requires self-confidence to enjoy; when notions of social incompetence and superficial perceptions are abandoned, it is in fact an essential component to a healthy social life.

Realizing this, I finally crawled out of bed and stopped scrolling through the endless internet feeds, using my time alone to catch up on personal activities that I’m unable to do in the presence of other people (and no, I do not mean Netflix!). As I reconnected with my violin skills, sang old songs at the top of my lungs, immersed myself in adult coloring books and wrote my first poetry in months, my free time effortlessly flew by. Strangely, I felt tangibly in touch with my whole self, but I couldn’t have done it had I not been alone.

Of course, I will always welcome a good day spent with friends and will surely continue to make new ones this fall. However, I’ve learned to embrace solitude, knowing that no plans should be made solely to escape being alone — to do so would be to escape the only person with which I would spend my entire life.

From time to time, we all need to wind down and appreciate some quality time with ourselves. Don’t worry, the silence won’t be awkward.

Angela Chen can be reached at angchen@umich.edu