One great difference between full time work and retirement has been the amount of time I spend alone. As a doctor and teacher I had a career that involved working closely with people and during my last years at work almost every hour was spent in the company of others. Mostly it was with individuals or small groups, sometimes with hundreds. Somehow everybody – students, patients, secretaries, administrators, colleagues – expected that I would always be available either to speak or to listen. Solitude at work was a rare option. Often the inner self pleaded with me to take time off for reflection, to gather my thoughts, but I never did. It goes without saying that at the same time at home the company/solitude balance was very different. There, in the evenings or weekends, conversation was at a premium and solitude sought only rarely.
Now retired, being alone is commonplace and the pleasures of solitude are being realised. I still greatly enjoy company (chatting, communicating), which remains very important to me. As always, it is times shared (with my wife particularly) that characterise some of the best moments of my life, and by the same measure, make difficult times the more bearable. Nevertheless, these days, in any one day I probably spend around 8 hours alone and these I treasure. Indeed they are essential as so many of the things I love and do, for example writing, studying or simply cogitating, all actually demand uninterrupted time. Thanks to the way we run our lives, my wife and I have a loose timetable that tells us in advance what times we will have together and what times apart. Armed accordingly, we can make our various arrangements.
There are, of course, all types of solitude, and most of them I enjoy. Often they offer time to think, to resolve, to imagine, to create, and I can happily do all these for hours. But in addition to this, for example, being alone in the open countryside with no one near or even in ear-shot, exhilarates. Being alone in a street (or bus, or underground) populated with people with whom I do not speak, fascinates. Being alone at my usual table in my favourite café with a waiter who, from experience, knows my order without saying, relaxes. Being alone at home quietly gardening with my wife in our shared silence, perhaps she weeding the flower bed and me planting some vegetables, consolidates. And of course, being alone and comfortable in the sitting room, music playing, surrounded by books, a cuppa, and a phone if needs be, tapping out an article or letter on the desktop, is heaven.
But so far all my experiences of solitude have involved me as an active and autonomous being. They have been a matter of choice rather than being imposed or there by default, and have rarely lasted long. They have been part of a planned programme, have been undertaken from a position of physical and emotional comfort, and have been bracketed by guaranteed periods of sharing. Also, by and large, they have been free of a sense of vulnerability. All very important qualities, since without these, aloneness can quickly convert into feelings of ‘loneliness’ in which solitude becomes coupled with sadness.
In some people, I believe that ‘loneliness’ can sometimes be a state of mind, perhaps self engendered or part of psychiatric illness, possibly even as part of a social construct (there is no equivalent word for ‘loneliness’ in everyday French!). In others, the origins of loneliness are more tangible and need little explanation. So when at a gathering you are treated as invisible and excluded, a feeling of loneliness would seem inevitable. Or when at the surgery and the news the doctor gives you is grave, the feelings of loneliness are instantaneous and greatly magnified if there is no one there to give support. And loneliness seems inevitable if one is poor, alone, infirm, vulnerable, and dependent, with no apparent future, no apparent purpose, and nobody with whom to share.
I am hoping that with all my practice and experience with aloneness, somehow loneliness can be avoided. With aging there is always a question of increasing vulnerability, but at the moment I feel optimistic.