Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 19, 2020

The importance of peaceful solitude

By LILLIAN KAIRIS | December 4, 2014

When I was younger, and teachers or summer camp instructors or various adults-trying-to-relate would ask me what my favorite animal was, I would say “the human being.” They would say that wasn’t what they’d meant.

I wasn’t a smart aleck and I wasn’t an animal hater; genuinely, non-sarcastically, my favorite animal really was — and is — the human being. It’s funny, but not at all uncommon. We are sociable creatures, and so just like little-naïve-kid-me professed, a lot of us love good ol’ Homo sapiens more than anything else.

Being in college, it’s hard not to find that sociable niche. They say it’s an extrovert’s world, and it really is. You need to talk to get ahead in classes. Ninety percent of this student body has a roommate, and that’s not to mention the simple fact that you can’t go anywhere without running into someone you’re at least vaguely familiar with. By all intents and purposes, I’m an extrovert at her prime, a fish firmly placed in a cushy bed of water.

Yet it’s not entirely that simple. This past weekend, I — like many other Hopkins students — ventured back home, to the vastly underrated land that is Delaware. It was weird. Lovely, yes, but weird.

My mom picked me up from the train station on a Friday at 5 p.m. and took me straight to hot yoga, something decidedly and gloriously typical for my mom and me, something wonderfully home-ish. It was relaxing and distressing and brought back all the mellower feelings that yoga at home with my mom used to inspire, but it was... Well, it was jarring.

Different. Lonely.

I can’t describe exactly what happened, but somehow, a few seconds into savasana, as I was lying on the floor, detoxing myself into oblivion, I stumbled unsettlingly into existential crisis mode.

My mind was swimming with questions. What is the purpose of my life? Will I ever create anything worthwhile? It was deep and anxious and way, way too depressing for the Thanksgiving break bliss I’d planned for myself. But I’m kind of glad it happened.

After yoga, I recounted the awkward tale.

“Mom, I just had an existential crisis.” I was certainly lucky that we’re close and that she’s non-judgmental to a fault. Though I’d been freaked out and lonely, those five minutes of panicked musings inspired 15 minutes of comfortable, thoughtful mother-daughter conversation.

And after that, hours of conversations on video chat, reconnecting with high school friends I hadn’t talked solidly with for ages.

And then, beyond that, almost every night, precious minutes spent writing little reflective notes before I fell asleep. My existential crisis inspired something beautiful.

It may be an extrovert’s world, but solitude is so, so important. Even the most people-loving individuals, those like me who claim the human being as their favorite animal, need some time spent alone. Research shows dozens of benefits for “me” time — from improving memory to boosting self-esteem.

In a 1997 study, adolescents even reported increased well-being after they spent time alone, despite the fact that they may not describe solitude itself as particularly “positive” or “fun.” And I get that. I would not call my Yoga Existential Crisis of Thanksgiving 2014, like, “the best time of my life! Oh yeah! Can’t wait to do that again!” But it was worth it.

Because of my random existentialism, I got closer to the people around me, I self-analyzed, and I got some of the best creative ideas I’d had in a while. People these days fear loneliness more than almost anything, myself included, and it’s understandable.

It’s understandable to want to surround yourself with love and appreciation, but I think we do ourselves a serious injustice when we fear solitude so much that we can’t spend a single second without accompaniment; when we, say, can’t even go to the bathroom without our phones (guilty as charged). We do ourselves an injustice because we miss the opportunity to just be a person.

It’s a hectic world here at Hopkins, and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Going home for break, you’re suddenly not (pleasantly!) swarmed with 5,000 peers every second of your life, and that’s a serious adjustment. Then, when you return — that’s an adjustment, too.

But with my not-so-terrible moment of existentialism at the back of my mind, I think it’s wise to separate ourselves from this social world every so often.

Whether with yoga or reading for pleasure or Netflix or even just a solo trip to the bathroom, sure — it helps to be alone. You reflect and recharge, and hey, maybe even find yourself divinely, creatively inspired, busting out the next great American novel or Hollywood screenplay. When that happens, put me in the credits. You’re welcome.

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