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Embracing Curiosity About Solitude

By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder

I’ve got several things on my mind lately. And though they might seem worlds apart, stay with me while I tell you how Pandora’s Box and the concept of solitude are relevant to each other. Okay, here we go:

Carrying on my theme of looking at mythology from my last column, I recently read Elizabeth Lesser’s book, “Cassandra: When Women Are the Storytellers, The Human Story Changes.” This book goes so far beyond mythology as Lesser touches on everything we are all concerned with: values, storytelling, finding our voice, home, body wisdom, meditation, and self-confidence.

Her take on Pandora’s Box retells the curse of the curious woman who couldn’t resist opening what was actually a storage jar. Pandora gave into temptation, releasing the spirits of suffering such as toil, sickness, famine, jealousy, hatred, war, and birth/death. 

The ridiculous lesson this is supposed to teach us? Don’t be curious, when in reality curiosity is an act of creativity. Speaking metaphorically, I feel that women have learned from this myth to fear opening themselves up to new definitions of themselves borne out by new experiences and self-beliefs. And one major belief we all need to dispel is that being alone is a negative experience.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the “epidemic of loneliness” that is being heralded. In fact, recent contributions by ISW columnists Rhonda Collins and Kaye Olsson have broached this subject in different ways and both columns have been among our most well-read.

Yet I think there’s an important distinction to be made about what it means to be alone—and flipping the perspective can make a huge difference.

Living Solo

The idea for this column was seeded when a friend recently shared that she is concerned about what her life would be like if she outlives her husband. “I am really worried about being alone,” she confided. 

She’s got a point. We do tend to live longer than men, potentially giving us numerous years of life alone. 

Becoming a widow isn’t the only way women are finding themselves single. More and more women are finding themselves going solo, by choice or circumstances whether due to mutual agreement, personal stresses and even the increasing chaos in the world that is putting pressure on many relationships—and many marriages and long-term partnerships are breaking apart. 

But I also question why my friend and other women are “preworrying” before the situation even happens? Why is my friend seeing her husband’s potential death as a life sentence to loneliness? 

I feel that women can come to terms with worries like this if we just understand the difference between being lonely and being alone….

Embracing A Different Paradigm

I feel it’s important to begin to flip the paradigm about what it means to be alone. What if we reframe our time alone as solitude, as opposed to loneliness? 

For me, solitude implies that we’re proactively taking time to be alone, whereas loneliness gives off a sense of being unwanted and forcibly sequestered away from the world.

Philosopher and author Jonny Thomson concurs in his Insightful Big Think column:

To be lonely, then, is to desire an absent want. It is to feel an emptiness that remains unsatisfied — to feel isolated, in need, or abandoned, but with no one to help.

Yet solitude is another thing altogether. To be solitary is to retreat into yourself, and to take great pleasure in your own company. When we’re solitary we reach into a communion with the self, and we can think as freely, and be as honest, as we like. It’s only when we are cut off from all other distractions, and other people, that we have the space to meditate on life and to discover great things.

Listening In

Recently I had a conversation with another friend about why many people put up barriers to meditation. I shared my hypothesis that we’ve been conditioned to look outside ourselves for our cues, leading to “FOMO” (fear of missing out). We always have to have someone or something—a podcast, a video, music—filling our every moment. As women, we also fill our time with tending various relationships, whether that’s our partner, children, grandchildren or friendships, or helping someone in need. 

None of this is bad—but when we take it to extremes, we can put everyone else’s needs in front of our own. And in doing so, we neglect ourselves in the process. 

That brings me to another part of my hypothesis: we don’t really want to know what might be hiding in our own personal Pandora’s Box. If we don’t open the lid--if we don’t look—we’ll be safe from the big scary things that are lurking in the dark of our inner self.  And in not looking, we ignore shadow behaviors that, if we bring them into the light and address them, can actually make our life richer.

Additionally, when we don’t spend quality time alone with ourselves, we don’t get a chance to truly know ourselves—our likes, our dislikes, our desires, our patterns, our evolution. We don’t give ourselves the space to tap into our body’s wisdom, our inner knowing, our intuition.

And we don’t get a chance to truly know the only person who will be with us every day of our lives—ourselves. We don’t learn to quiet the ego and get in touch with the soul, that innermost part of ourselves.

Embracing Solitude

I first began to experience solitude during my fallow period in 2015. At that point, I not only had FOMO, but also too many voices in my head—my father’s, my deceased mother’s, my former bosses, and my culture’s, to name a few. I could tell you what each of those voices wanted me to do, but I couldn’t recognize my own inner voice. 

That realization led me to pull back a lot from the cacophony created by outside stimulus. In its place, I began to listen more deeply. At first, I tended to hear my mind, and those choices tended to be about as filling as well as a fast-food burger.  They “tasted good” in the moment but weren’t satisfying long term.

But eventually, I quieted my mind down enough that I could hear my inner wisdom. I started listening for my body’s cues, whether it was my heart leaping for joy or my heels literally digging into the ground when I was going in a wrong life direction. 

Now I’ve started taking regular “solitude” breaks, such as my nine-day meditation retreat and holiday periods when I step away from the ever-present technology that tries to run my life. I also enjoy a different type of “happy hour”—or as Caroline Myss calls them “holy listening”--that involves nothing more than being outdoors looking for glimmers, whether that’s watching the clouds rearrange themselves in the sky or nature’s antics around me.

Don’t get me wrong—there have been occasions in life recently when I’ve felt lonely. But instead of wallowing in it, I realize that I need to be proactive in reaching out to people. And because I have learned to enjoy solitude and to listen deeply to myself, I make choices more often that truly fill me up. 

In doing so, I’ve opened Pandora’s Box and been faced with some of my issues—like fear (which was couched in competitiveness). Slowly but surely, I’ve managed to address some of those shadows that used to dog me. That’s in line with earlier versions of the myth in which, as Lesser pointed out, Pandora was considered a gift of healing and the earth’s fertility as noted by her name, which means “all-giving.” 

And as I use solitude to face and release those inner demons, I find that I’m increasingly tapping into the one spirit remaining in Pandora’s Box—hope. And that’s what we all need in life right now.


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