A Delaware Wave reader asked me the difference between an “irrational” (her words) avoidance of people versus true and healthy solitude. To figure out what’s irrational, you have to back up and define what kinds of interactions with other people are valuable to you. The person asking this question must consider what people – both casual acquaintances and closer relations – have to offer.
Most of us will do this with our money. Some of us will even rationally evaluate the way we spend our time. But few, if any, take time to consider what kinds of people advance, or don’t advance their emotional interests. The error is in treating time with people as a duty, or as an out-of-context absolute. I once had a client who refused to make friends or have any social contacts of any kind. When I asked him why not, he explained, “Nobody has ever been able to explain to me the value of a personal contact with another.” While I don’t agree with his conclusion that a lack of all personal contact offers any actual value, I did understand his rebellion against the prevalent idea that “You should socialize with others, just because.”
Life is short, and we often forget that time spent with other people should serve a purpose. Even if the purpose is simply laughter and enjoyment, it’s still a purpose. Think about the time you spend with particular people. Do you do so for no particular reason? Or can you objectively identify the gain you experience from being with that person?
A lot of people stop me right here and knee-jerk with, “That’s selfish.” So what? Is it selfish and wrong to evaluate how you spend your money or your time? Let’s say you discover you don’t find it valuable to spend time with someone, or at least not as much time as you do. Is it selfless – and therefore somehow virtuous – to pretend and deceive that person into believing you like him or her more than you really do? If honesty and authenticity are selfish, then I’ll take selfish every time.
Healthy solitude, on the other hand, can be an end in itself. A truly healthy person knows how to enjoy time alone. Nobody, not even a cherished romantic partner or spouse, can meet your every last need and share every possible interest. Sometimes it’s necessary to quietly think, plan and process one’s feelings. It can be valuable to do so with a trusted confidante such as a spouse or close friend, but sometimes it’s just better to be alone with one’s thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with solitude unless it’s used as a means of conscious avoidance. But even then, that avoidance is only wrong if it prevents you from experiencing things and connections could make your life more valuable. You don’t owe anyone your time, and they don’t owe you, either.
Socializing should not be a duty. It’s all for you. And it’s also for the person on the other end of the experience. It’s up to that person to do everything I’m advising you to do here. Unless a connection or association is mutual, it can’t be valuable. If you discover that someone values their time with you more than you do with them (or vice-versa), it’s better to face the truth and move on. Again: Life is short. It’s not a catastrophe when people outgrow each other. New experiences are always out there, and socializing is how you find them. But at the same time, value your chosen solitude: In the right dose, it can be a wonderful part of living and make you a better partner or friend to others.
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