Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
The Value of Isolation, Loneliness and Solitude
… the highest and most decisive experience of all, … is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.
I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other. For, if it lies in the nature of indifference and of the crowd to recognize no solitude, then love and friendship are there for the purpose of continually providing the opportunity for solitude. And only those are the true sharings which rhythmically interrupt periods of deep isolation.
Rainier Maria Rilke (1902)
If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t get married.
Anton Chekhov (n.d.)
The only antidote to fear is to go through it. Only by embracing loneliness may its tyranny be broken.
James Hollis (1996)
In the course of researching another essay for this blog site, I came upon the quote by Jung above. It caught my eye and I made note of it, thinking it would a good topic to pursue at some point, since so many people face the paradox embedded in the Hollis quote: The only way to come to terms with loneliness, solitude and isolation is to deal with these most unwelcome realities. In this essay I will begin with some definitions, then consider why solitude is so essential and loneliness so inescapable, and how we might take up the challenge of dealing with them. The final section tackles the question “Why bother—what benefits lie in store if we “embrace loneliness” and learn to love solitude?
“Isolation” comes from the Latin insula, “island,” suggesting the physical separation and distance from others implied in the term. “Loneliness” derives from an Anglo-Saxon word ana, meaning “alone,” in the sense of lacking companionship. The Latin solus (alone) is the root of our English “solitude,” the state or condition of being alone.
These three terms refer to “the central and inevitable fact of human existence,” a “basic ingredient” of life,” “one of the essential characteristics of the human condition:” We are alone. Each of us is a unique individual, with a particular way of being and responding to life—a way of being that can be discovered only when we recognize and enter into isolation, welcome loneliness and go into solitude.
Jung put great store in isolation, regarding it as “the highest and most decisive experience of all,” because it is only when we are alone with ourselves that we can discover our inner supports, and in this discovery, come to know the “indestructible foundation” of our being. Other terms to describe solitude and loneliness are “opportunity” (to search for one’s self/Self, to find new life and greater self-awareness), “existential” (an inescapable part of the human condition), and ineffability (the fact that the experience cannot really be put into words). Aside from being particular and unique to each person, the feeling of solitude, of being isolated, is a hunger for life that goes beyond what words can express.
Ultimately, solitude is a paradox. The Jungian analyst James Hollis expressed this well: “When we are not alone when we are on our own, then we have achieved solitude.” Given the predominance of Extraversion in American society, we tend to overrate company, crowds and being with others, and underrate the value of solitude. Succumbing to these Extraverted pressures means we never make our own acquaintance, never come to know the characters of our inner city, and never develop the self-sufficiency that allows us to know we are never alone.
Why Solitude is Essential
Developing self-sufficiency and self-discovery are two reasons why experiencing solitude and loneliness are core features of living consciously. We can never really grow up, heal the wounds of our early life, and develop our personality without time alone with ourselves. Daryl Sharp, a Jungian analyst, minces no words on this point:
… for the development of personality… its first fruit is the segregation of the individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation and there is no more comforting word for it…
The development of personality… mean fidelity to the law of one’s being,… Group work and esoteric practices—crystals, vision quests, channeling and the life—are much more exciting. They tempt with promises none of us is immune to: deliverance from the woes of this world and escape from oneself.
The more we “enmesh” ourselves with others and look outside ourselves, the less we individuate, and “the less we serve the greater purposes of the cosmos for which we were so mysteriously generated….” No one else on Earth has your exact set of skills, talents and personality, and the soul task for each of us is to recognize our uniqueness. This does not happen but in solitude.
Jung offers another reason why solitude and time alone with ourselves is so important: “the animation of the psychic atmosphere.” By this Jung refers to the fact that when we are alone the unconscious gets “activated.” Jung experienced this himself when he sat in the evenings communing with his inner characters, dialoging with them, drawing their images in his Red Book, and giving them the opportunity to nourish his life. Jung felt the coming alive of our inner characters was a form of compensation for the “loss of contact with other people.” When we turn away from “out there” and the people in outer life, we can begin to make contact with the life within us, and the variety of inner energies that people our “inner city.”
Solitude is essential for living a full life also because it provides a “source of power and creativity.” By taking up the challenge of enduring loneliness we prove to ourselves that we are strong. We come face-to-face with the creative energies that live within.
We also discover our intuitive wisdom, our “source of insight and direction.” While others may wonder about why they are alive, what their purpose is, whither to go, the person who has regenerated through solitude has a much clearer sense of purpose and a reliable inner compass for navigating through whatever adventures life may have in store.
How to Cope with Loneliness and Solitude
Well, OK, you say. So solitude is essential to individuation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the experience sucks. Yes. There is no getting around the fact that the whole business falls on our own shoulders: nobody can do it for us. There really is no one but the individual to do this. You have to assume responsibility for yourself and your life, and by accepting this truth you throw yourself back on your own resources. No one else can find out who you are and what you are made of. In recognizing this and accepting this reality you take a big step in growing up. This is the first step, what I have referred to in an earlier essay on this blog site as internalizing a locus of control.
Second step: submit to your own loneliness. Accommodate your loneliness emotionally. Accept the challenge of “bearing the unbearable.” James Hollis calls this step going into a “swampland of the soul,” since it is so unpalatable, but in going through this “swampland,” you “break the hold of the primal fear that holds sway over much of…” your life. Hollis is blunt about what this step involves:
All this hideous doubt, despair, and dark confusion of the soul a lonely man must know, for he is united to no image save that which he creates himself… He is sustained and cheered and aided by no party, he is given comfort by no creed, he has no faith in him except his own….”
But note well: the result here is the discovery that sustenance, cheer, aid, comfort and faith lie within you.
Another phase in the process is born from the communion with the self/Self in Step 2. The experience of inner silence has turned up unknown sources of energy you didn’t know you had. Now you wait. In my experience this is the most difficult step, because our culture is not given to waiting, being patient, surrendering to the active non-action that the Chinese, with their notion of wu wei, understand so well. We want relief and we want it now! Instead, we have little more than contact with our own feelings, and those don’t feel so good. Far from sensing that we’re making progress, we often feel as if we are regressing, and in many cases we are! Jung was sanguine about this: Unlike Freud, Jung did not have a negative view of regression. Just as in the game of fencing, there are times in inner work when we must reculer pour bien sauter, fall back so as to better position ourselves to move ahead. Many times when I went through this phase I felt like I was falling, falling, falling through a seemingly-endless space. It was horrible! I would often ask myself—and my analyst—if it was ever going to end. The answer: Yes, but never soon enough.
Eventually, assuming you stick with it, you hit the wall, bottom out, get to the lowest point you can imagine—a level of desperation or unhappiness that seems insurmountable. But, like Dante in the lowest circle of Hell, there we discover self and Self. We begin to sense inner guidance, perhaps an inner voice, or an inner law or energy. We let go of fantasies that hindered our growth—none more pertinent in this regard than the archetypal search for the “magical Other.” By this point we have come to realize there is no “magical Other,” no one who is going to come along and “rescue us from existential isolation” and solve all our problems, including loneliness. We also begin to get wise to our projections, compulsions and long-standing habits that have sabotaged our happiness. We can admit that our basic needs for mirroring, self-validation and love were not met in our childhood environment, and, without being about to figure it out or trying to make it happen, we set about “… creating within [ourselves] the response that others were not able to give.” In my work with students I often refer to this interval as a “cooking”—things are incubating in the unconscious and, although we usually cannot verbalize just what is going on, we know our inner characters (and most of all, the Self) are working to bring about our healing.
Slowly we begin to accept ourselves, to like ourselves, to feel like the Self is there and is reliable. We get beneath the veneer of persona stuff—all the masks and posturings that we felt we needed in order to be acceptable (which never succeeded in achieving that goal). I found in this phase that it helped a lot to keep my ego mind distracted. This can take many forms: reading books related to the process of individuation, an active involvement with one’s work, exercise and other forms of physical activity, like yoga, and various forms of meditation. There seems to be some sort of internal rhythm, unique to each person, that can help out in keeping outer consciousness distracted while the inner life incubates change, and it helps to get in sync with this rhythm, however it shows up for you. The key is to be in integrity with yourself: forget about what other people are doing, what they might think, how you might appear to others. This work is all about becoming true to the person you are.
In fact, one of the keys to coping with the experience of loneliness that is so essential to individuation is to become sensitive and selective about the company you keep. Some people will understand what you are about; others won’t. Daryl Sharp, the Jungian analyst quoted above, notes that this work will “segregate” you from the “undifferentiated and unconscious herd.” I tell my students that their circle of friends is likely to change as they stay the course, since we are naturally drawn to people whose energy level is similar to our own.
Given the above, it should be no surprise that Jung and his followers refer to this work with loneliness as the task of heroes. “Only heroes need apply,” I tell people who want to take up dream work. They usually don’t understand, at first, until they hit the wall. The hero’s quest, indeed!
Some of the Benefits of Coming to Terms with Solitude and Loneliness
At this point you might well wonder why anyone would take up this challenge. Why be a hero? What benefits could possibly justify such travail? There are a variety of reasons, aside from the obvious benefit of better relationships with other people (less “needy,” more conscious, more honest dealings with friends, family and strangers). For simplicity I will group the benefits in general headings.
Growth. Confronting and grappling with existential loneliness helps us grow. We “give birth to something new in ourselves,” when we allow ourselves to be alone with our inner life. We manage to throw off the “constricting forms of our existence,” and move toward “new horizons” when we learn to exist independently of others. Our spiritual world enlarges too, as we become aware of our unity with all of life, and in some real, though ineffable ways, we discover new paths of being, new ways of relating to reality.
Authenticity. By turning within and making the acquaintance of our inner characters, by befriending them and helping them heal, we foster our individuation in major ways. Struggling with the reality of our isolation, we come to know the “laws that are peculiar to” the individual we are. By throwing ourselves back on our own resources, we discover “who we are, of what we are made,” and this allows our inner energies to “generate from that soul-stuff the richest possible person we can” be, as our uniqueness unfolds. As we find our true self, we become capable of deeper levels of honesty, with ourselves and other people. We can live more aligned with our ethical and moral values, even as we relax in the knowledge that the Self can be trusted to direct our path and take the course that is best for us (which might not be what our ego mind would choose). We discover “truths that have been obscured for a long time,” and recognize the “distortions” that were a feature of our old perceptions. We become able to be around other people in a place with “a clearer, more valid vision and understanding.” Most of all, we become our own authority; we internalize a locus of authority, as we stop looking outside to others for self-validation.
Creativity. A key quality of the Self is creativity. “Behold, I make all things new!” God declared to the author of the book of Revelation. Making newness—new life, new attitudes, new self-image, new relationships, new forms of artistry and self-expression—is a major benefit of working through loneliness. It’s a benefit that, in many cases, we can take to the bank: It provides income as well as personal pleasure and fun.
Strength. With its superficial values and externalization of the loci of control, authority and security, our society is very vulnerable and weak. Jung recognized this and so he urged his students and patients to find inner supports, psychic resources lying within, which will provide support when we (i.e. the ego mind) can no longer support us. By confronting loneliness forthrightly and wrestling with the challenges it poses, we find the “strength… to look at how things really stand…” and this gives us both freedom and an indestructible sense of security. Knowing we have within everything we need to cope with the exigencies of life, we achieve both strength of character and stamina to go the distance in living life to the full.
Individuation requires self-sufficiency, independence of mind, and the ability to stand apart from the crowd and go our own way. Jung was explicit on this point. He repeatedly experienced the isolation that comes with greater consciousness, with knowing more than those around him (not in the sense of intellectual “smarts” but rather “knowing” as being more self-aware). While the experience was not pleasant, Jung knew that it came with great benefits, especially the strength, authenticity, creativity and growth noted above. We can enjoy these benefits too, if we take up the hero’s task of wrestling with the demons of isolation, loneliness and solitude.
Carotenuto, Aldo (1989), Eros and Pathos: Shades of Love and Suffering. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Hollis, James (1996), Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
________ (2009), The Red Book Liber Novus, ed. Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W.W. Norton.
Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.
Moustakas, Clark (1975), The Touch of Loneliness. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Rilke, Rainer Maria (1975), Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties, trans. John Mood. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Sharp, Daryl (1995), Who Am I, Really? Personality, Soul and Individuation. Toronto: Inner City Press.
Collected Works 12, ¶32. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Quoted by Hollis (1996), 61.
World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, I, 1045.
 Hollis (1996), 50, quoting Thomas Wolfe.
 Moustakas (1975), 21.
 Carotenuto (1989), 88; cf. Hollis (1996), 59.
 Moustakas (1975), 17.
 Ibid., 9, quoting Ross Mooney.
 Seventy-fix percent of Americans prefer Extraversion; Keirsey & Bates (1984), 25.
 Jung (2009) & (1965), 170-199.
 For a description and discussion of the concept of the inner city, see the essay “Our Inner City,” archived on this blog site.
 Moustakas (1975), 14.
 See the essays “Components of Individuation, Part II” and “How to Internalize of Locus of Control, a Locus of Authority and a Locus of Security,” archived on this blog site.
Hollis (1996), 64.
 Ibid. This is the title of his book.
 Moustakas (1975), 77.
 Moustakas (1975), 40.
 Carotenuto (1989), 88.
Moustakas (1975), 40-42.
 Carotenuto (1989), 92.
 Moustakas (1975), 6.
 Cf. Hollis (1996), 11, and Carotenuto (1989), 92.
 Carotenuto (1989), 61-62.
Within the tesseract, the mythic hero makes contact with his daughter as a ghost, a memory: via language, books, a watch. Why a library, why a wristwatch, why books within a black hole? The answer to that question has no logic, there is no science for it “bad” or otherwise; it is very simply that the filmmaker has intentionally chosen those things for a reason, and to deny that is fairly ignorant about how movies work.
What are the things that we can pass down before the dust takes us all? Nothing digital, but physical objects at least cannot be erased. The writing you make in the margins of a book will travel through time in a way an ebook never can (I thank William Gibson for this personal and heartfelt illumination).
Cooper tells his daughter early in the film: “We become our children’s memories.” He actually has to literally do that. What we are observing is the process of how our lives run down and we are consecrated to memory, visualized as an infinite library. It’s fucking incredible.
Some have criticized this notion of becoming your children’s memory as self absorbed. I don’t really follow. I hate to break it to you, but we are all destined to become someone’s memory. Interstellar knows that, but is not a movie concerned with death, as much as the effects of time on human lives. Caine’s character flatly states it: “I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of time.” I’ll give you that he does quote Dylan Thomas a little too much, but then again how can one be annoyed with a reference to poets in a very expensive movie, another endangered species?
Murphy, the daughter, finally decodes and reconciles quantum mechanics with general relativity, having been handed essential data from the other side of a singularity. She does so with the aid of a stopped, glitching watch, a sigil of atemporality, a signifier that time has lost all meaning, a device often passed down as an heirloom. The event horizon and the human desire to explore leads us to insights we pass down in time. This happens all the time; when we inherit books, ideas, and the artifacts of what our families and friends were. In the end this grandiose movie about traveling through space comes down on the side of family, knowledge, love, and books.
So there we are, in the theater, watching the movie, offered an extradimensional perspective by the language of filmmaking. What’s remarkable about us is that we can conceive of transcending limitations, and this is maybe what all true science fiction is (for movies now are awash in power fantasies with the production of science fiction but so few ideas): an attempt to open doors to all the quantum possibilities of what might be.
None of them will ever come true, but our relationship with the science fictional future is always predicated, even most cynically, upon hope that there is a future. In both Interstellar and William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral, a disaster is averted with information passed down from the future of humanity. I take this to mean that we have the ability to imagine a future in which humans understand better. Which means it’s a viable possibility. Gibson has said, “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”. For a moment, watching a movie offers us a glimpse into the yearning, the longing, the hope we had for the future and our place in it. We can look forward in time.
As the film nears conclusion we are given one of its slyest images. Apocalypse is contained as a rural American farmhouse, within a museum, now a relic, a rarely visited tourist spot. The suffering of those who will endure the Anthropocene just might someday fade into recorded testimony. Interstellar asks us for a final inversion (in a space station where the earth encircles the sky above us) of our present, so that exploration is something we do and in our character; and our post apocalyptic visions, so dominant in our culture currently, become relics in museums, gathering dust. Time is a prison. But the film passionately argues, let’s explore it to our limits.
The only conspiracy or rebellion we can offer against the relentlessness of time, against the universe’s progression toward entropy, is love; the act of committing to memory that which will be lost. Love is not a higher power in this film, but it is transcendental. In this model of the Cosmos, in this sentimental orrery, love cannot exist without time, the two are inverse, complimentary, entangled like quantum particles. Time’s very meaning is derived from the impermanence of life.