January 2024
During the holidays and beyond, being alone can be hard, and hard to address

Solitude hinders social development. It can lead to abnormal habits, such as talking to oneself and lax hygiene. Solitude may foster feelings of shame, loneliness, depression or suicidal ideation. Its conducive to creativity — and insanity. Solitude is not the norm; feelings of isolation that stem from solitude can be cured, but often leave emotional scars. Solitude is used as punishment in the home, in schools and in prisons.

That said, solitude is nothing to be ashamed of, and some prefer it. Some individuals suffer from social anxiety, and solitude is their coping mechanism. This doesn’t necessarily mean they like being alone, merely that, for them, it’s preferable to the alternative. The Loner in fiction may be depicted in romantic fashion: self-sufficient, mysterious, cool and possibly emotionally damaged (in a somehow endearing or sympathetic fashion). In day-to-day reality, the loner is often seen as a loser and weirdo, someone with something to hide.

There are, of course, a many who don’t choose solitude, but who are nevertheless alone. The elderly, for example, or the physically or mentally ill. Add to these the homeless, the bullied, and all manner of societal ‘misfits.’ Time spent alone for such people may be enforced by circumstance, or the opinions of others. These are the forgotten, the disdained and the ostracized.

During the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, a thought is sometimes spared for those who are alone. The Salvation Army and some churches offer traditional holiday meals for those unable to prepare their own or who need a sense of community. Coworkers might extend an invitation to unattached acquaintances. Some individuals will set aside a plate for those they know would otherwise do with less on those days.

It’s important to remember, however, about those who dwell too much alone: solitude changes people. A person can become accustomed to solitary ways. Unexpected solicitude or an invitation to share time can be disarming to someone in isolation. Be gentle in your approach, and don’t be offended by reluctance. You might be surprised at the stress your well-intended gesture can cause. If the object of your attention is used to being alone, they may be alarmed, suspicious or embarrassed by your offer. To accept is, in a way, to admit to a social stigma. Be patient as well as compassionate. Be mindful of your manner.

Assume nothing. Give them time to consider. Repeat the offer. Don’t badger and do accept no for an answer, but don’t expect or require immediate acceptance from an individual who is socially awkward. Be prepared to overlook social gaffes from the unpracticed. Think beyond the holidays. Obviously, traditional events make it easier to justify your efforts, but there are 365 days in year. A person can be just as alone in June as December. Human kindness doesn’t require an excuse. Always give in to your temptation to be kind, however often you feel it.

If you yourself are alone by choice, remember it can take a toll. Are you perfectly content in your lifestyle? If not, and you concede that human contact, on some level, is desirable and necessary to mental health, don’t panic. A small effort is really all that’s usually required. Make yourself available to human contact. Decide your own pace. Sit in a public park — without a book or phone to hide behind — and experience others. Respond if addressed. Make an overture yourself. Or just watch. You’ll soon find they’re just people, as deeply flawed as yourself.

If your solitude is not of a voluntary nature, that can be harder. So many possible reasons for this exist that it’s hard to offer a single solution.

First, know that being alone does not necessarily mean anything is wrong with you, and it doesn’t have to be a permanent condition.

Second, be honest about your need, ask for and accept help. Rest assured that whatever your situation, you’re almost certainly not the only individual in it, hence not alone. Like minds can be found online, if nothing else.

Third, there may be no help for you. What to do then? Take the focus off yourself. Help someone else. If you have nothing to offer but compassion, give that. The world we must all live in affects how we feel, thus making the world a better place must benefit us all.    

“Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased; thus do we refute entropy." — Spider Robinson

Anthony Gainey is a Prescott writer and observer of the human condition.

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