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New book Solitude makes the case for being alone

Michael Harris is the author of The End of Absence, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award and became a national bestseller.

Author Michael Harris argues for the need to disconnect from others in his book Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World

Dr. Edith Bone's captors kept her locked away for seven years and 59 days, alone in dark, putrid prison cells, often freezing and close to starving. Yet to her guards' frustration, the isolation did not break her.

On the contrary, Bone, who was imprisoned in communist-era Hungary by officials who accused her of being a spy, spent her waking hours translating poetry into the various languages she knew. She took daily walks in her mind through all the cities she had visited, and formed tiny counting beads and letters out of stale bread, so that she could make calculations and spell out ideas. After she was finally released in 1956, she described herself as emerging "a little wiser and full of hope."

Bone's extraordinary ability to withstand solitary confinement is recounted in the opening pages of Vancouver writer Michael Harris's new book, Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World, which makes the case for learning how to be comfortable being alone.

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Harris, author of the bestselling and Governor-General's Award-winning The End of Absence, examines how media technologies and cultural norms deter us from experiencing real solitude. He argues the ability to be alone is undervalued, yet vital, especially in an era when many of us are constantly connected through e-mails and social media, but at the same time, lonelier than ever.

While the common cure for loneliness is to develop more connections, Harris believes solitude is another remedy worth pursuing. He spoke to The Globe and Mail from his home in Vancouver.

What is it about certain people like Edith Bone that makes them better able to withstand being alone?

I think some people have built a house inside their chest where they can live. It's a question of whether or not you have a rich interior life. Ultimately, whether you're in solitary confinement as Dr. Bone was or you're an 18-year-old working at a Starbucks in New York, as wonderful as your connections are, you have to have that rich interior life to retreat to and also just to have a sense of faith in your own life.

Dr. Bone was an exceptional woman. She trained as a physician. She spoke six languages. She was no slouch. She also lived in the 1940s, well before long-distance communication was a thing, long before we had this ambient connectivity in our lives. In a way, she was luckier to be born at a time when disconnection and solitude were a fact of ordinary life.

I think we have fewer opportunities to build that house in our chest these days because we're constantly looking for some affirmation online, or some act of digital social grooming.

How does solitude differ from loneliness?

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Loneliness is failed solitude. Solitude is a state of productive and contented time alone, whereas loneliness is an anxious emotion that derives from the suspicion that you're supposed to be somewhere else or you're supposed to be in the company of others.

We often encounter loneliness first, as kind of an instinctual reaction, and if we move through loneliness, we arrive at solitude on the other side.

In the book, you mention a University of Virginia study that showed people would rather give themselves electric shocks than spend time alone with their thoughts. What is it about being alone that makes people so uneasy?

I think people don't have faith in their interior lives. We've been groomed since birth to believe that whether or not we have a good idea or whether or not we're good people is dependent upon the crowd. It's dependent upon whether we're retweeted, whether or not we're loved by others. In our schools, we're trained to think of collaboration as the ultimate social good, and we don't spend a lot of time learning how to daydream.

So there's a bias in our culture against spending time alone. People are afraid of loners, they're always trying to bring people into a state of constant social access. Part of that bias is constructed by corporations. If you think about the technologies we use, there's nothing profitable, as far as Silicon Valley companies are concerned, about you disconnecting. Nobody's going to encourage you to log off, in the same way nobody at McDonald's is going to encourage you to eat broccoli. So you have to make those kinds of decisions yourself.

We may ultimately need our governments or non-government organizations to step in and help us out with these things, in the same way they stepped in to help us out with smoking.

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What is the point of protecting the ability to be alone?

I think of solitude as a territory, a resource that is under attack by a culture at large, but more specifically, by companies that profit by consuming our solitude and turning it into data or advertising revenue. The benefit is if we hold on to that resource, we then develop for ourselves a rich, interior life that consists of three parts. The first is the ability to arrive at fresh ideas. You don't get a fresh idea at a conference table or by crowdsourcing it. The second is self-knowledge and self-awareness, which is to say figuring out what you like and what you believe, independent of what Amazon thinks you might like next. The third, and perhaps paradoxical, benefit is closeness to others. We have to have a genuine experience with solitude to be closer to the people we love.

Why is that? How does being alone affect our relationships?

The best way I can think of explaining it is if you go to Paris and you send a text message every 10 minutes to your partner, you're never really missing that person. If you wait a month and write a single love letter, there's a richer experience of that person that is called up. In order to desire something, you have to be without it, by definition.

And it's a cliché, but you can't really be ready to love someone else unless you've come to terms with who you are as an independent person. This is something self-help books have been telling us for some time, and it's essentially true.

You spent a week alone, without phones, Internet or television, at a cabin in the woods on Pender Island in British Columbia. What did solitude feel like?

The first two days of it, you go through withdrawal symptoms. You become so addicted to the dopamine hits of social grooming that when it's taken away from you, it doesn't feel healthy or right for the first little while.

Then you come through that. You're basically forcing yourself to live through the discomfort and loneliness. Your body and mind have incredible resources, though. By day three, you're walking through the woods, you're noticing aspects of nature that had completely passed you by before.

In my case, I started having long conversations with my grandfather, who died the year I was born. From a position of solitude, you can really delve into what that person meant to you.

So how did you feel at the end of the week?

I was definitely ready to come back. I think testing myself in that way gave me faith in my own faculties. It gave me the ability to every day say, "I don't actually need to pick up my phone for the first two hours after I wake up. The world doesn't fall apart." But that's not something a week in the woods gives you automatically. That's a practice, a habit you have to develop every day. In the same way, I don't really believe that a seven-day fast is going to fix all your health issues. These things are usually better dealt with through small daily changes.

In this climate where we have what's been called a loneliness epidemic, how does one become better at being alone?

There are personal changes, but there are also larger government and managerial changes that need to take place. We've seen parts of Europe where companies and whole countries push for no e-mail after 6 p.m., and things like that. When there's a perpetual opportunity for connection, you end up with an arm's race where you're sitting at the dinner table, thinking, "I'd better check my e-mail because I know my boss is going to check." You have to have limits imposed by people who are in charge. You actually do need your boss to say, "I don't want to hear from you after 6 p.m." Or you have to have, maybe in government agencies, a manufactured level of solitude.

You can also have companies begin to recognize that if they want ingenuity and original thinking from their employees, they must design solitude into their lives. We have to connect with others and collaborate, of course. But that has to be balanced by a walk in the woods.

Getting back to the kinds of changes individuals can make, what other measures have you taken to carve out solitude in your own life, besides not checking your phone first thing in the morning?

I think I became a lot more comfortable telling people I wasn't going to go hang out with them. Some people can't handle a request for alone time. The one or two friends who are like that, they've kind of been sacrificed. That sounds awfully harsh, but you know what I mean. It comes down to being comfortable claiming your solitude and insisting that it has a value in and of itself. You don't have to make up an excuse. It's okay to not want to socialize.

We're constantly trained to believe that not socializing is anti-social behaviour, but I think that is actually a mistake that we're making. Solitude is social behaviour in that it makes us healthier, more caring social creatures because then when we do interact, it's more meaningful.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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