How to Be Alone by Sarah Maitland

Is it harder than ever to be alone these days?  If any time we have time on our hands and reach instantly for a phone or device to connect us to the world in some way, is it from a fear of solitude?  Why do we regard those who want to be alone as odd, despite the fact that twenty nine percent of households in the UK have only one occupant, or that our culture places such a high value on individuality?  By her own admission, the writer Sarah Maitland is not the obvious candidate to explore such questions.  She has lived a noisy life, from being one of six talkative siblings to an active involvement in the student politics of 1968 to a love of conversation.  Indeed, she describes herself as an accomplished ‘deipnosophist’, that is ‘a master in the art of dinner conversation.’

Looming midlife and a divorce led Maitland to an interest in silence, its history and how to accommodate more of it into our increasingly hectic lives.  She experimented with living alone and travelled to experience different forms of silence such as Quaker meetings, Buddhist retreats and a forty day stay in a remote corner of Skye.  The result was 2008’s A Book of Silence, a mixture of memoir and cultural history that argued for a greater than ever need to find places in which we can experience silence.  She now lives alone in an isolated cottage in Scotland where the nearest shop is ten miles away.

As someone who has been attempting to disengage with a lot of digital culture and to mark out times of quiet and solitude for myself, the book was a huge help in my thinking.  One thought I had as I read it was that the experiences and advantages of silence that Maitland was writing about could also be considered as consequences of solitude.  As someone whose solitude has been enhanced by the soundtrack of birdsong and running water in the countryside and who can experience silence in the presence of others I’m not sure they are the same thing.  In the follow up How to Be Alone (2014, 163 pp), Maitland acknowledges this common criticism of A Book of Silence and lets us know that she wants to ‘address the serious social and psychological problems around solitude.’

How to Be Alone is published under the imprint of The School of Life, the Bloomsbury based secular healing centre founded by Alain de Botton.  It is a retreat for spiritually voided middle class types with work issues (a tribe of which I am a card carrying member) to attend motivational classes, seek advice from a star name talk and buy self help off the shelves.  Other titles include How to Find Fulfilling Work and How to Deal With Adversity.

This book carries all the self help tropes.  There are short chapters with encouraging titles like ‘Face the Fear’ and ‘Explore Reverie’, there is homework (mainly a reading list with a few ideas thrown in) and practical tips for how to shoehorn alone time into your day.  We are treated to a raid of the cognitive behavioural therapy toolbox and there is a short section on desensitising oneself to being alone.  Jung and his personality types get the obligatory mention.

Before the therapy, Maitland gives us an ‘absurdly brief canter’ through the mess of attitudes solitude in our culture and how our suspicions towards it, what she labels ‘mad, bad, sad’ thinking have grown.  She puts it down to an unresolved tension between the Roman ideal of honour as public service and the Christian prizing of solitude and inner contemplation.  When Rome is stormed by Alaric in 410 AD it puts a curb on ironing this out and Christianity embraces the world, giving up some of the inner life in exchange, and ever since attitudes have swung.

The Greeks idealise public philosophising (although this conveniently ignores Plato) and the Middle Ages have Saints as ‘media celebrities’.  Then we get Protestantism which challenges the value of solitude before the dandies and neoclassicism of the Enlightenment and writers like Gibbon decrying the ‘ascetic epidemic’ with his portrait of ‘a hideous, distorted and emaciated maniac without knowledge, without patriotism, and without natural affection.’  The Romantic ideal of the lone figure then dominates; think Freidrich’s paintings and Wordsworth’s ‘gracious…benign solitude.’  Now we live in an age where freedom has encouraged collective action but in which sexual liberation has rescued ideas of solitude.  So a mess, really.

We are then given a series of ‘exercises’ to help us rebalance our attitude towards solitude.  These include facing our fear of being alone and doing something enjoyable alone.  This could simply be achieved by doing something alone that one would normally do in a crowd, like going to the cinema, or seeing ‘maintenance’ tasks like vacuuming as a safe way of being with one’s thoughts for a short period.  Maitland here is good on the contest between work, leisure and maintenance for our time, pointing out that it used to be the case that people once led more solitary lives and came together in groups for communal activities such as a big village wash or sheep shearing.  Now our culture, with its increasing demand for ‘maintenance’ gives us much less time for leisure, time we have been conditioned to spend with others.

There is also the sort of standard advice such as morning yoga, going for a solitary walk in the countryside and running.  Maitland also recommends rote learning, both for its intrinsic benefits and its ability to occupy the mind in a focused way.  She tells a good story of Edith Hajos Bone, who survived solitary confinement by delving into her capacious memory for lists and poems and imaginary walks around city streets she knew so well.  I can personally attest to the joys of trampling around the countryside while trying to recite poems (not out loud, I already look weird enough).

Maitland is also good at encouraging us to allow our children to spend more time alone.  The shocking rise in diagnosed childhood mental health conditions and an increasingly alienated youth are, she believes, partly to blame on children not being taught how to spend time by themselves.  I have always felt, watching people watching television on trains or instantly going for phones the minute they sit down in cafes speaks huge volumes about a society that seems terrified of being alone.  To me it has always seemed such a huge part of what it means to be an adult that I cannot but help wholeheartedly with Maitland on this one.

Finally there are five benefits of solitude: increased consciousness of the self, attunement to nature, a relationship with the transcendent, creativity and freedom.  If there was a canter before then is a gallop.  There is a lot of rehashing, as there is throughout the book, of material from A Book of Silence and all the obvious figures get a look in here: Thomas Merton, St Anthony, Emily Dickinson, Thoreau.  There is a lovely story from a friend of Maitland’s who finds absolute freedom and joy in escaping her family for a night or two by heading into the countryside with a tent.  This is the best advert in the entire book I would have preferred much more of these personal experiences.

If you are thinking about trying to carve out some more time for yourself then this book could be useful.  It has some good tips, although nothing earth shattering, and the reading list at the back is capacious and well worth diving into.  However, this is a nice companion piece to A Book of Silence and I would recommend the earlier book for a more comprehensive and thought provoking argument in the need for solitude in our lives.  This also didn’t stop my self help rash from breaking out in hives.  I have career worries too, but I don’t think I’ll be buying How to Find Fulfilling Work any time soon.




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