Why is it that we need time to ourselves? Humans are social beings, and one might expect us to be always wanting the company of others. Why might we benefit from time alone?
TIME ALONE TEACHES US TO COPE WITH TIME ALONE
Firstly, if we can’t learn to be alone, then we might have miserable lives. When we go to sleep, we retreat into our own mind. During the day, there will be times when everyone else is busy or occupied. If we aren’t happy in our own company, without the attention of others, then we are going to suffer when we are left alone.
It’s wise for children to be given a certain amount of time to occupy themselves. Otherwise they may grow up entirely dependent on those around them, treating others as a kind of ‘play-station’. Time alone can enhance the imagination. We learn to invent games for ourselves, to enjoy our surroundings as a quiet observer, and to perform activities in a focused and self-sufficient manner.
TIME ALONE KEEPS US INDEPENDENT IN OUR THINKING
Just as we need time with others to acquire new influences, so we need time alone to make sure social influence is moderated. We need to be able to think critically, to assess the world with our own minds. We can decide what to read, what to research, what thought processes work for us.
Think of a baby learning to crawl. A certain amount can be gained through the help of others, but a lot of the physical learning happens by experience of one’s own body, and active exploration of ‘what happens next’. This embodied personal learning is familiar to artists of all types – writers, painters, sculptors, dancers. We need time to feel our way.
TIME ALONE HELPS US RELATE TO NON-HUMAN OBJECTS AND BEINGS
It’s not very fashionable to say it, but our relationships with objects are as important as our relationships with living things. And our relationships with non-human organisms is also very important. Why? Because over billions of years of development, our own being has been forged from the elements we see around us.
When we look at the stars at night, we are looking at things that were here way before we were. When we walk through the woods, we are witnessing landscapes, plants and trees that are far older than us. We are, in a very real sense, children of the universe, and so we should feel able to return to it without fear. Our relationship with natural objects, plants and animals, is already deep from birth. We need to feed on that.
TIME ALONE BALANCES OUR HORMONES
Being in company encourages certain hormonal responses which can be stressful if experienced too much. We have to be attentive to a huge range of social signals, and it can be exhausting. Time alone lets us discharge and replace those chemicals. We can end up calmer, and more ready to face the world.
TIME ALONE CALMS ARGUMENTS
Distance is necessary in all relationships. After an argument, it can be good to gain space from each other, and experience other things. Time is a great healer, almost miraculous in its adjustments. We may need time to adjust to a change in circumstances. Time apart helps partners and friends to feel each other properly when they come back together. It also helps each person to adjust to change and growth in the relationship.
MENTAL ILLNESS AND TIME ALONE
Anxiety and depression can cause problems when it comes to private time. If our inner fears are at a high level, then our own company can be very painful. We can end up desperately seeking the conversation and company of others for basic reassurance.
If this is happening, then we can modify our concept of time alone. If being entirely alone is too much, then we can find ways to be in the embracing company of others, but also fundamentally in our own company. An example is going on retreat, where we are socially embraced, but also are free to be alone while surrounded by others. Another example is staying with a friend, where we are part of a daily routine, but have chunks of time which we can spend on our own, knowing that it’s not for ever.
There are many advantages of spending time alone, even for a social animal like a human:
- It teaches us to be comfortable in our own company
- It keeps us independent in our thinking
- It helps us reconnect to the universe we evolved into over billions of years
- It helps us balance our body hormones and chemicals
- It gives us time to calm down from arguments
If we feel too mentally ill to spend much time alone, then we can use going on retreat, or staying with a friend, as a way of experiencing the reassuring presence of others while still having an opportunity to spend some time with ourselves.