Earlier this week, on my way home, I walked past a man and his young bull terrier. Pulling the excited animal along behind him, he picked up a phone call just as I passed them. ‘Hi,’ I heard him say. ‘Yeah, I’m okay ... I’ve been feeling a bit introspective lately.’
‘Me too,’ I thought before I turned a corner and lost them.
Everything has been moving in this direction for a while. Right now, I get most of the human interaction I need from my work hours. After work and on weekends, I tend to stay on my own. I haven’t felt this way since my early teens, so it’s almost a bit concerning now – how content I feel with myself, and my own thoughts.
I’m an only child, and an introvert, so I grew up entertaining myself. I would come up with the greatest stories to play out with my animal toys, or I would draw. Once I could write, I would do that. By the time I had my own computer, I would sit inside, curtains drawn against the bright afternoon sunshine, and write pages and pages of stories nobody would ever see.
It’s similar now. Of course, age and years of depression change you, so nowadays I can’t go 24 hours without leaving the house, or a dark cloud will form above my head. But I take a notebook, or a podcast, and I walk. Maybe I run errands, or maybe I just wander. Maybe I take photos or sit down somewhere to write. If I hear from a friend or family member, that’s great. If I don’t, I don’t miss it.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a lot to say about ‘Einsamkeit’ – solitude. In a letter to friends in 1906 he called it a ‘plaster cast for the soul’: ‘My inner life has been dislocated for months, and solitude for now only is a plaster cast for the soul, inside which something is healing.’*) He mourned the attitude towards people who like their own company (‘Parents fear when they notice in their own children the quiet tendency to be alone; those shy boys seem eerie to them, who early in life have their own joys and their own sorrows[…].’) when solitude is a necessity for everyone; especially the artist, and those who love, because a good love is a love where ‘two solitudes protect, adjoin and greet each other’ – as it is impossible to truly love another person without having taken the time to get to know oneself.
Fun fact: in my near 30 years in this life as a German, I don’t think I’ve seen Rilke’s use of the word ‘Einsamkeit’ as meaning solitude in modern German. It always means loneliness; there is always a negative connotation to it.
It’s not always easy being alone. Especially these days; social media can connect us, but it can also remind us with even more ease how much we’re missing, and increase our feeling of disconnection. I’m sure I’ll wake up soon one morning with the belief that everybody I care about has decided they don’t like me anymore.
Until then, I keep learning to enjoy my own company again. If we can believe Rilke, the relationship with ourselves, after all, is the only one in our lives that will not be characterised by distance.
* All clunky translations from the original German are my own.