Hearing that many people were struggling with feelings of fear, isolation, and loneliness, I have been inspired by the corona-crisis to write a book about The Gifts of Solitude. I realised I have something useful to offer, having spent up to five months completely alone at sea, without seeing another human being, or even dry land, when I was rowing solo across oceans. The solitude, and the fear, were very real. I had to find coping strategies, and eventually came to appreciate solitude as a pathway to emotional maturity and self-reliance.
So I have set myself the challenging but, I think, do-able task of writing a short book on the subject, aiming to publish around mid-April. But knowing that time is of the essence, and it’s important to get the content out there as soon as possible to support people in these trying times, I am going to publish previews of draft chapters as I write them – both here on my website, and on Medium.com.
My wonderful Italian friend Milena Fraccari (who has been in lockdown longer than most of us) has created a beautiful new website for the project – please share the link with friends who you think could benefit. They can sign up for updates, and find these draft chapters, plus the podcasts, videos, etc. I have reunited with Producer Vic Phillipson to do a video/podcast on an ad hoc basis – probably every couple of days.
My greatest wish is that this content will be useful to you. If you are feeling scared or lonely in your solitude, I hope it will bring you peace. If you’re surviving solitude, but enduring rather than enjoying it, I hope it will help you appreciate its opportunities. And if you’re relishing this chance to escape the daily routine, I hope this book articulates what you already know to be true to the extent you will want to share it with friends and family who have yet to find the gift in these times.
Call to Action: Obviously, I am offering this content – for free – because I want to do what I can to support my fellow humans in these difficult times. But like many, many others, I am suffering financially because of the coronavirus – my main source of income is keynote speaking at conferences, all of which have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. I have the chance to earn a few cents, ooh, maybe even dollars, according to how many people read my articles on Medium, and for how long. So you would be doing me a huge favour if you would please read the rest of this on my Medium page.
Chapter 1: Feel What You’re Feeling
“But feelings can’t be ignored, no matter how unjust or ungrateful they seem.” – Anne Frank
There is a good reason why solitary confinement has long been regarded as one of the harshest possible punishments: it’s hard. Humans are fundamentally social creatures.
For many millennia our survival depended on being part of a tribe. Alone, we were vulnerable. Together, we could share the workload, pool resources, and care for each other when we were young, old, or sick. Humans who were sociable would have a better chance of surviving, and passing on their genes.
Apart from practical considerations, there are also the emotional needs. We know that children who are deprived of social contact, such as those in Romanian orphanages, suffer severe developmental problems. Most humans need a sense of connection, to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. Of course, being in company is no guarantee of these things, but having no company at all can be deeply unsettling.
At the same time, for most people it’s normal to want some time alone, to think, process emotions, or take a break from talking. But normally we get to choose when and how we spend our alone-time, and for how long. Prolonged isolation can lead to physiological changes in the brain that makes rats fearful and aggressive, and scientists believe the same is true of humans.
Add fear into the mix, such as worries about infection, or financial concerns, and not only can the solitude become even more oppressive, but your immune system can be affected – exactly what you don’t want when there is a pandemic raging. Feelings of loneliness can actually affect your health, even your lifespan.
And solitude gets a really bad rap in popular culture – love songs where loneliness equates to heartbreak, commercials in which success and happiness equate to drinks/holidays/product-of-choice enjoyed in the company of friends throwing back their heads in laughter, Friends and its ilk – where solitude equals bad and gregarious equals good.
We are bombarded by messages that only losers are alone, while winners are surrounded by wonderful, charming, hilarious company. But is that really true?
You might take the view – and I would have to agree with you – that because I had chosen to put myself in a solitary situation, alone on a rowboat on my way across an ocean, that I had surrendered all right to complain about the predicament in which I then found myself.
In my defence, it didn’t feel to me like my choice had been entirely voluntary. Maybe in the same way that someone feels an overwhelming urge to have children, like there’s some force beyond our control that is calling us to do something, I had felt deeply called to embark on this adventure. It would be easy for me to say that it was because I’d had an environmental awakening, and desperately wanted to do something to raise awareness of our looming global crisis, and rowing solo across oceans was my way to get people’s attention. That would be true, but it wouldn’t be the whole truth.
There was something deeper calling me out onto the ocean, a desire to find out who I was, and what I was capable of, some kind of impulse to test myself against a huge and daunting challenge. I was a willing accomplice to whatever force was driving me to do this crazy thing, but it also didn’t feel like it was entirely an act of free will. When I had received the call to adventure, I felt blindsided but also excited, and soon realised that to refuse the call would feel like a betrayal of some kind of soul-self that was urging me to transcend my limits.
The trouble with believing that some kind of higher power has called you to do something, is that when that something turns out to be a great deal harder than you ever imagined, it’s easy to feel mightily pissed off about it. I felt like a parent or a trusted teacher had invited me to do a task so far beyond my abilities that it looked like they were setting me up to fail.
Still, I told myself, I had vowed not to be one of those adventurers who decide to do something, and then complain vociferously about how unpleasant it is. I didn’t want my blog posts from the ocean to be an endless litany of grumbles. So I put on my best stiff upper lip, pasted on a metaphorical smile, and tried to pretend I was enjoying it.
Needless to say, this made it much, much worse.
If Pollyanna’s Glad Game works for you, I’m very happy for you. But it didn’t work for me.
I understand why friends, family, even authors, urge us to focus on the positive, and be grateful for what we have. It’s not for our sake. It’s because they don’t like to listen to our whingeing.
When I tried to glad-game my situation, it simply added another layer of stress to what was already a very stressful situation. It made me feel guilty and inadequate for not coping better. I was assailed by the must and should and ought of trying to be cheerful.
On Day 58 of the Atlantic crossing, I posted this note to my blog, titled “Cheerfully Miserable”:
Last night I finally admitted to myself that I am not enjoying this. I’d been so determined that I would enjoy it, it has taken me until now to admit that I was wrong. (There then follows usual litany of whinges – oars broken, food cold, bed wet, shoulders aching, stereo kaput, flapjacks finished etc etc etc.)
But it’s OK.
In fact, when I made this honest admission to myself, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my weary shoulders, the burden of pretending to myself or anybody else that this is fun.
Because it doesn’t matter. I am still achieving my personal objectives out here, and whether I am enjoying it or not is irrelevant.
In fact, it is even a good thing that I am not enjoying it. My mountaineering friend Sebastian, who was killed by an avalanche in Peru in 2003, once said, ‘The greater the suffering, the sweeter the summit’. If I was finding this easy and fun, the ultimate sense of achievement would be less.
This row has already pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of enduring. For the most part I have found it unpleasant, uncomfortable and exhausting. It has taken every ounce of my resolve and determination to keep going. When I arrive in Antigua (God willing) the knowledge that I struggled and still succeeded will sweeten the final accomplishment a hundredfold.
I figured this out at the start of my night shift last night, and spent the rest of the three hours cheerfully hating every moment.
And this is the point: we have to feel what we’re feeling. If we try to suppress emotions that our family or our culture have told us are bad or unworthy, they just get louder. It’s like trying to hold an inflatable beach ball under the water. It just wants to pop back up again. The harder we push it down, the more energetically it’s going to burst through. You’ve probably heard the saying, what you resist, persists. In my experience, it’s true.
At times, emotions like fear, anxiety, loneliness, or depression are a perfectly rational response to the situation in which you find yourself. (And also times when they are not, in which case you should seek professional advice.) Rather than suppressing or numbing what we’re feeling, there is real value in honouring our emotions. Rather than running away from them, we can turn around and dive deep into them.
You might have heard the story about the cows and the buffalo. I haven’t witnessed this personally, so can’t vouch for its veracity, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good metaphor.
When they see a storm coming, cows will apparently run away from the storm (to the extent that cows ever run). This is what a lot of us do. Storms are scary, so we try to run away from them.
The problem is that eventually that storm catches up with the cows, and because the storm and the cows are moving in the same direction, the cows spend a lot longer than they needed to being bombarded with wind, hailstones, thunder and lightning.
The buffalo do the opposite. They head straight into the storm. This sounds counter-intuitive, but think about it. The buffalo and the storm are moving in opposite directions, so although they still feel the full fury of the storm, pretty soon they’re out the other side and back into the sunshine. The cows prolong the agony, the buffalo get it over and done with.
We can fight reality, we can try all kinds of diversionary tactics to avoid reality, we can try to ignore reality. Our strategies might even work for a while, and we think we’ve beaten reality.
But reality will have its wicked way with us, sooner or later. In my experience, sooner is better. The sooner we get present to the reality of our situation, and our feelings about our situation, the sooner we get to that sunshine on the other side, where we can look back at the storm and appreciate the gifts it brought us.
What is going on for you right now, in this moment? What is your reality? What are your feelings about your reality? Feel what you’re feeling, without judgement. Allow your feelings to be what they are, without labelling them good or bad. Simply be a witness to your inner state.
What feelings are you avoiding? What are you numbing, or suppressing? What would it be like if you invited that feeling to come and sit with you, talk with you, explain to you why it is present? What would it be like if you welcomed that feeling as a reminder that you are human, and humans have feelings? What would it be like if you understood the presence of that feeling as a reasonable response to the circumstances in which you find yourself?
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