Redrawing the Space Around Us

As the great Kevin Parker once sang, “Company’s okay, solitude is bliss”. Brighton Grace considers whether time spent alone might ultimately be beneficial for us all

When asked on what advice he would offer to young people during an interview, renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky offered this reply: “I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion.” French Existentialist thinker and writer Jean-Paul Sartre put the thought even more succinctly: “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” Considering the sudden isolation that many people both in Australia and abroad find themselves during these times of the pandemic, I think that these above statements should especially be considered. Perhaps we, as young university students of a particularly social generation, should no longer attach negative connotations to being alone, but instead see it as an important and liberating condition. 

So, what are the potential pros to spending more time by oneself? As a young person who is neither introverted nor extroverted, I found that having more time to myself meant that I was able to better understand who I was as a person, as well as to remind myself of who that person was. Although I enjoy going to a concert or the pub with a few friends, I have always remained particularly distant from any “social” scene, whether it was at high school or university, mainly because any of the parties or “gatherings” I did attend never felt like productive socialising. Now, the phrase of “productive socialising” might seem like one uttered by someone who is a workaholic, someone who looks at every activity in terms of ergonomics, but firstly, I can assure that I am far from a workaholic, and regardless, I feel that the term is an effective one to have in mind when we think about how we should approach our social lives. When I did engage with the “party scene” at my high school, I was often confronted with the ironic feeling that Tarkovsky described in such settings: feeling lonely despite being surrounded by other people. One of the main reasons for this was the pressure to conform to the larger crowd by acting like someone who was the antithesis of me. 

There seems to be little to point to socialising if all it does is erode your own personality and individuality

To me, socialising should be a productive activity in terms of building the identities of all of those involved, rather than encouraging them to become homogenised. If too much time is put towards spending time in these settings, then the risk of completely sacrificing the time to engage in your own interest, for example listening to the music or watching the films that you enjoy, is run. There seems to be little to point to socialising if all it does is erode your own personality and individuality. Instead, spending time alone grants us space to explore ourselves, not only to reflect on what’s come before us and consider where we want to go, but also the ability to practice the hobbies or engage in the activities that inform those aspirations. 

In my first article that I wrote for Et Cetera, I highlighted the issue of how many young activists who champion worthy causes don’t actually have a consistent worldview, a fault which threatens to undermine the strength of said causes. A potential remedy I see for such an issue is dedicating more time to take a step back from the prevailing ideas being touted before us and formulate our opinions on them in order to bring our own unique perspective to them, as well as to assess how they correspond to the other viewpoints that we hold.

Another considerable positive to solitude or spending time alone is how it leads to having far more meaningful friendships. British anthropologist, Robert Dunbar, theorised that it is only possible to truly know and maintain friendships with a maximum of one hundred and fifty people, which he coined “The Dunbar Number”, basing his calculation off studies of early societies to modern milieu. This number was greatly exceeded by many of my peers in high school who seemed plagued by a constant influx of notifications and text messages. Although none of these highly social people that I knew seemed bothered by this, I always felt that being able to properly know each of the authors of those messages was an insurmountable task. Further, I was left wondering if it was ever possible for them to focus on themselves, when they were always caught in conversation with others. Dedicating too much time to oneself is seen by some as indicative of self-possession, but often it helps with being more considerate to those that we interact with; since there is less time to dedicate to catching up with people under a timetable that gives you space to be alone, you become far more selective of the company that you keep. 

After all, you can still be idle in busy places

I would like to add that socialising is also an incredibly important thing, whether it be to stay in touch with old friends, meet new people or just maintain our mental health. I’m looking forward to being able to return to my university studies on campus and as well as attending more live music. However, I see it as all too common that no time is allocated to ourselves, whether it is even to such simple activities as reading a book, listening to an album in full or just reflecting on the day. It appears the only moment reserved for solitude in the modern age seems to be going for a walk. Often solitude is associated with a plethora of contemporary social issues. Notable examples include the stoicism that often leads to toxic masculinity, or the aforementioned problem of self-possession, but I think it is important to distinguish between isolation and solitude. In my view, isolation is where one never even entertains the thought of interaction with others and becomes trapped in their own bubble, whereas solitude is more of a meaningful and productive break from the bustle of everyday life. What I think we need to shake is the assumption that being surrounded by people is a guaranteed remedy to loneliness, and the often arbitrary, second-nature instinct to be as busy as we can and to situate ourselves in busy settings. After all, you can still be idle in busy places. 

To conclude, in a time where so many people have found themselves in self-elected or imposed isolation, and in a context that has denied us our usual levels of socialising, maybe it is time to take up cartography and redraw the space around ourselves.

Brighton Grace is a first-year Arts/Law student, majoring in English at the University of Sydney

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