Why most of us are not any good at being alone
Coping: As Nietzsche well knew, solitude forces us to confront our truest selves
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, embraced solitude as deeply enriching. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images
Nietzsche was a solitary fellow. Really, with that ridiculous oversized moustache, he was always doomed to solitude whether he chose it or not. It looked like a hairy cruise liner traversing his face.
Women were decidedly put off by it, despite his reputation for meticulous hygiene, and he never married. The misogyny probably didn’t help either, but an enormous moustache is a little like that most awful of all haircuts, the mullet: regardless of how wonderful the person who dwells beneath it may be, it is beyond the capacity of human beings to see anything but the statement made by the hair.
Even in this age of the hipster, when facial hair is more prevalent than ever, I have never seen a reproduction Nietzsche moustache on anyone. Not even on people named Fiachra who drink flat whites and espouse the benefits of socialism and a keto diet while wearing a €400 Aran jumper with “pre-engineered” holes in it. Never.
Regardless of the origin of the bristled warthog astride Nietzsche’s lip, he embraced solitude as deeply enriching. It was, he thought, the only means by which we can know ourselves and eliminate the social pressures that alter how we think and behave. In many ways, he’s right. The way we behave when we are alone is entirely different from the self we present to others. When we are alone with ourselves, we are undignified. We might listen to bad pop music from the 1990s that nobody knows we really like. We might put a sly finger into our belly button and have a curious, deliciously forbidden sniff. We might eat jelly beans in the bath – or is that last one just me?
Mutiny of the mind
When we aren’t being childish or disgusting when alone, we are generally thinking. True solitude is a rarity in the modern era, and most of us aren’t very good at being entirely alone with ourselves. When you find yourself totally alone for the first time in a while, without any particular task to force your focus outward, your brain will instantly begin considering itself. It will remember the people you spend your days trying not to think about. It will flash into vivid focus with an agonising sting the memory of something embarrassing you did eight years ago. It will remind you that you never did take that woodwork night course, or change careers, or that you’re getting on and maybe you should have a fertility test because tick tock.
In short, it will mutiny.
We have all had friends who simply cannot be alone. They flitter from partner to partner, but they always have one. If they have a day off, they’ll launch themselves up a mountain or on to a wave rather than take a solitary walk. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these activities are bad – they’re great. But if you’re doing them to avoid thinking, then you’re avoiding reality and ultimately yourself.
The mind screams at us with such urgency because we so rarely take the time to peer in and see what it’s up to. There are jobs and family and bills to think about. And not a child in the house washed! Why not exercise your mind, like a large dog? Take it out and let it run for a while every day. That way it won’t eat your sofa or defecate on your bed. Rather than avoiding the uncomfortable directions your mind takes when you take the shackles off, why not consider why that’s where it goes? Sit with your own discomfort and let it tire itself out.
We moved to a rural area recently, and since I work from home I’ve been spending a lot of time with my own mind. It can be a bit of a shit. It tells me things I don’t particularly want to hear. When it tells me the same thing enough times, I try to act on it and the fear lessens. There is a difference between solitude and loneliness – poor Nietzsche was probably intimate with both. But he was right that we are our truest selves when we are alone. If you don’t like that person, change them. But don’t grow an enormous moustache. That really won’t help.