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30 August 2023

Inside a cupboard, I found the solace of solitude

Hiding among waxy coats and mud-encrusted boots, I spent two blissful hours without my phone and the internet.

By Charlotte Stroud

It was approaching midnight at a friend’s wedding some years ago when I slipped away from the party. Sinking heels into damp grass, I picked my way back towards the house and away from the lantern-lit marquee. Inside, parents with small children asleep in their laps were eating wedding cake from paper napkins; mothers and aunts were in the kitchen drying dishes, quietly reviewing the events of the day. I moved deeper into the house, in search of solitude.

It may be not considered right to disappear at a friend’s wedding, worse still to wander through their aunt’s house. But I’d reached the point of social exhaustion; words had run dry, dancing had become self-conscious, and the overwhelming desire to flee all human contact had become insurmountable. I found a cupboard with a key. Behind this locked door, among waxy coats and mud-encrusted boots, I would spend the next two hours completely alone, without my phone.

This locked room is a place I return to often in my mind. It has come to represent the purest example of solitude I know, which unlike loneliness or isolation is a condition to be sought, and one from which a person returns renewed. It would have meant nothing, I realise, had I had a phone. Solitude is a deliberate withdrawal into the self, and phones want us to lose ourselves in them.

In 1925 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said that it was becoming ever more difficult to experience solitude. Man, he wrote, is “surrounded by things that terrify him, by things that enchant him, and obliged all his life, inexorably, whether he will or not, to concern himself with them”. Opportunities for man to find tranquillity, “withdrawing into himself”, wrote Gasset, were being eradicated in the frenzy of modern life, long before we began to carry these innocuous-looking black rectangles.

To live in our technologically addled state, “perpetually uneasy” with an “ungovernable hunger” for stimulation, is to live as an animal. With “no self, no chez soi” to “withdraw and rest”, wrote Gasset, the animal is always “alert to what is… other than itself”. We humans are uniquely able to “stand inside” ourselves, that nowhere place the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called our “infinite interior”. In neglecting this inwardness we risk our humanity. A “tiger cannot cease being a tiger, cannot be detigered”, wrote Gasset, but “man lives in the perpetual risk of being dehumanised”.

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[See also: The death of the social butterfly]

When we fall into the black screen of our phones, it is to the infinite exterior of the internet that we lose ourselves. We are in a place unbound, without walls, where feeds keep refilling, the news is always breaking, and conversations never end. The digital world engages the most atavistic parts of our brain: we are like hunted animals, roaming an interminable icy tundra, always beside ourselves, never standing within. And we are terminally online. When my son was asked at school what his mother does for work, he said he didn’t know: “She just goes on her phone.”

It was only after much frenzied patting of my pockets that I resolved to stay in the cupboard without my rectangular shadow. But my mind slowed, settled. Two hours went by. I thought about the friend who just got married, about the hopefulness of marriage as an idea. I understood, perhaps for the first time, how painful it must have been for my parents to divorce. I thought back to my childhood bed and conjured the Snoopy wallpaper that had lulled me to sleep. At one point, I was in Greece, looking out across the Aegean, a glass of ouzo in my hand.

Insulated from the opinions of others, I weighed some of the choices I had recently made, giving two final approval and questioning others. Locking myself in a cupboard was a strange thing to do, but I decided it was in my nature to retreat from social settings and that was OK. I cast my mind forward to old age and felt the dreaded vertigo that always attends a glimpse of oblivion. A long-dead family dog sat by my ankles.

That cupboard felt infinitely expandable, and yet blissfully bounded. My social feeds were frozen, the perma-conversations briefly stayed, the world momentarily news-less. I was a hunted animal who had found a cave and dusted away my tracks. Unlike the icy tundra of the internet, the infinite interior of the cupboard was full of warm places to stop, rest and remember a much-neglected sense of self.

It was shortly after my night in the cupboard that I became pregnant. Nine months later, I would be deprived of solitude for half a year while breastfeeding. Since then, I have often thought that one of the causes of postnatal depression could be the sudden loss of the freedom to be alone. Imposed solitude is a form of torture, but so is having it taken from you. It is our strange human condition to need something that in large enforced doses will send us mad, but in too small a dose can have the same disastrous effect.

When we talk about the pernicious impact of technology on our minds, we cite the things we watch or read that might trigger depression and anxiety. But the far more insidious online harm is the theft of our solitude. All day long, we are encouraged to curate our online selves, an activity that comes at the expense of the real one, which needs something deeper than attention: quiet. Without it, as Gasset wrote, we risk losing thought itself, which is not a given “but a laborious and volatile acquisition”. Fortunately, there will always be cupboards.

[See also: The making of EP Thompson]

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con