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Alone at Last With the Person Inside : Lifestyles: When was the last time you went solo--no radio, no TV, no Internet? While pop culture embraces the group, solitude can bring insight and creativity.

February 13, 1995|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is one the loneliest number--or a singular sensation?

In a society that pushes us into the arms of other people, too little attention is paid to the embrace of solitude.

"Popular culture is suspicious of solitude," says Michael Jolkovski, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va. "The word loner brings up thoughts of multiple burial sites in the back yard. There's considered to be something sinister in being by yourself. So there is a bias against it."

That bias--never more blatant than on Valentine's Day--surrounds us in a land of two-for-one specials, family discounts and the never-ending barrage of relationship-oriented media. Even dining at a restaurant is not always comfortable for a party of one, says Karin Romp, a psychotherapist who practices in Van Nuys and La Canada.

"The host or hostess will say, 'Oh, just one?' Then they stick you in a corner."

Many experts agree that developing relationships is important for our emotional health, but they also praise the benefits of solitude.

In his book "Solitude: A Return to the Self" (Macmillan, 1988), Anthony Storr explores the need for solitary time in the lives of ordinary as well as creative people.

"Two opposing drives operate throughout life: the drive for companionship, love and everything else that brings us close to our fellow men, and the drive toward being independent, separate and autonomous," Storr writes.

Roderick Gorney, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the program on psychosocial adaptation and the future, says U.S. society in particular seems bent on the importance of belonging.

"In the United States, being a member of the gang is a central part of our ethos," Gorney says. "Someone not comfortable with being a part of the gang is often considered a nerd."

Gorney adds that other cultures, such as many Native American tribes, view solitude differently.

"The values of popular culture are based on adolescence--being cool, being a member of the group, being attractive and well-liked," Jolkovski says. "Solitude is one of those few things that can't be exploited by popular culture. You can't have a 'Solitude Channel.' You can't sell it. It doesn't have a lobby in Washington. There are no products, no conventions of people getting together to get solitude. But seeking solitude is a very important part of life."

Los Angeles may be a bit of a paradox in terms of solitude. A big city, full of people with pressure to schmooze and socialize, yet many find themselves spending a lot of time alone, says Richard Ventura, 41, of Burbank.

"L.A. has a reputation of being fast and wild. But I think L.A. would kind of force you into solitude," Ventura says. "Very few people are from here--they come here alone and get used to being alone. It's difficult to meet people here too. The average person in L.A. is by themselves a lot, if nothing else but in transit."

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"It seems to me," Storr writes, "that what goes on in the human being when he is by himself is as important as what happens in his interaction with other people. . . . That solitude promotes insight as well as change has been recognized by great religious leaders, who have usually retreated from the world before returning to share what had been revealed to them."

Storr extols the virtues of solitude: getting in touch with deepest feelings; coming to terms with loss; sorting out ideas and encouraging the growth of the creative imagination.

The ability to be alone is a valuable and enriching skill, Gorney says. Instilling this skill in children helps them grow into more independent adults.

He recalls yearly visits to a camp from the time he was 6 or 7 years old. By the time children at the camp were 11, each was expected to spend a night alone on an island as part of that growing experience.

Stephen Goldman, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Las Vegas, says he prefers spending time alone.

"It is not just time alone, it's quality time. No one to bother you, interrupt your thoughts or make you do things," he says. "Even in my relationships, the best ones are when we are both comfortable being alone (together) and not paying attention to each other."

Within a relationship, Romp agrees, "It's healthier to give each other space. But in most cases, one person is threatened by that. It's important both people have a sense of self. Dependency does not result in a happy, healthy relationship."

Says Jolkovski: "You should acknowledge it as a normal thing and don't take it personally when your partner wants solitude. I know I'm an easier person to be around when I've had a little time to get my thoughts together. Sometimes my wife pushes me out the door to go for a run."

Solitude is also soothing for some bad moods, according to a study on mood control conducted over the last few years by Dianne Tice, associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

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