My experience feels unique to me, but of course, it isn't.
Looking back on some times I have spent solitary, I see some moments crystallising in my memory. Like that first gentle, thin ray of sunlight after rain, there is a meagre, yet growing warmth that is indigenous to my solitude.
Where does this warmth come from? First of all, from memory, which holds together the skeins of my life. Solitude enhances memory. And so, curiously, memories strengthen the sense of continuity I feel with others' lives.
If my solitude has been lit by memories, then it has also been warmed by a growing sense of my own identity. After I had lived alone for a while, I found myself caught up in innumerable inner dialogues, between the self dying of the grief of aloneness and the self who wanted to live; the self who believed and the self who denied; the self who loved and the self who repudiated love because it hurt too much.
Haven't we known, Like Whitman, that we contain multitudes? Compassionate and cruel, mature and callow, wise and jejune? Haven't we always known that the colloquy between these warring selves has been waiting for us to catch up with it?
Caught up in these struggles, I have had the chance to come to grip with unexplained beliefs and answer important questions. Why do I do this and not that? What is being asked of me? What am I to do with my life? When I lived surrounded by people, some of the passion and insight natural to my inner self leaked away through the sieve of the daily humdrum. Alone, I was forced to pay attention to the question marks in my heart.
Solitude, I found, is that identity-making place where I learnt to fight my demons. And how many I had of those when my solitude began: the fear of the dark, the fear I would never be loved again... The risk for all of us who live alone is that our feelings may become the most important thing in our lives! We may brood resentfully about people instead of responding to them.
Every day, the solitary person - still fighting the all too human battle against growing up - must cope with something new. Quickly and painfully, you discover what kind of a person you are, what kind of inner resources you can muster. In solitude, as Rilke says, "there is no place that does not see you" - so only honesty is good enough.
At my most daring moments, I like to believe that what is going on is that ultimately divine work - the shaping of my soul. True, there are many agnostics hiding in the foxholes of solitude; some of them became that way because they were alone for much too long. Nevertheless, there is something in the nature of the solitary experience that contributes to the growth of the spirit. Many a solitude has been lighted by the discovery of what the Quakers call "that of God in every man".
Above all, my solitude is warmed by people and my new understanding of them. That sounds like a paradox, doesn't it? You may ask: isn't the solitary, by the very nature of her solitude, handicapped in her relationships with others? On the contrary, the solitary is particularly fitted for relationships. As Carl Jung says "No one is more sensitive to companionship than the lonely man".
We have empty, therefore, open hearts as we did not when preoccupied with just one love. We are freer to meet the stranger, freer to talk to him in depth,
The sorrows of others seem to enter my solitude framed by the understanding of my own struggles. Solitude is part of the inescapable enterprise of maturing. A time for solitude, well used, is a spillway for what has choked one's life; it is an illumination of the rest of one's experiences.
But it is not always tranquil. My inward life is sometimes the threshing floor of emotions. I suspect that solitude never leaves you the way it found you. You emerge from it angrier, or gentler, sterner or more compassionate; more bitter, or more loving; more shut within, or more communicative; but never the same.
Search out the joys of solitude. I have heard people say "Nothing good ever happens to me". I don't agree. My gratitude journal list my daily joys: "Today N called"; "S sent me some music"; "DB sent me wonderful candy"; "Had lunch with N, S and P and giggled madly over the way H behaves"... Reading those pages, I watch myself growing and can only marvel at how unpredictable and wonderful life can be!
Solitary, or coupled, the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to learn with ourselves with courage, humility and beauty.