chapter  13
Being alone
Pages 4

It is worth considering what being alone at various stages in the development of human beings can signify. This must encompass discussing whether being alone is a chosen state, deciding one needs to walk along the shore alone to gather one’s thoughts, or whether the being alone is imposed by circumstances, a spouse left alone after the death of a partner or by divorce. It might be useful to distinguish the capacity to be alone, as Winnicott has defined it, from the dread of aloneness, which carries with it the often desperate needs of the person for a kind of frantic sociability thought to be essential to ward off the essential experiencing of the self and its fantasies. For to be alone offers the opportunity to follow the pathway of one’s own thought. This may be the mature individual’s use of time alone, a time of reflection, where thought can proceed associatively and connections previously unremarked can be formed. Nor is this experience purely intellectual or indeed wholly conscious; it does not leave out sensuous experience. Think of a baby, spending time alone in his cot or pushchair, seeing, watching patterns of light in a room, or outdoors, learning visually about the world around him, and taking in the sounds and smells of the household or the garden or the street. This time alone provides space for a vital learning and integrating mental and emotional process to take place, in which gradual recognition of the nature of the baby’s environment is built up. Indeed, the provision of quiet time-‘being alone’—is vital, because we cannot in infancy experience and make sense of our experience simultaneously. Therefore there is a need for the quiet time alone to, as we might say, catch up with ourselves, allow for the experience to be made sense of. Winnicott also proposed that one of the primary maternal functions a mother provides for her baby is that of a protective shield, regulating the amount and intensity of stimulation to which the baby is exposed, including from his own emotional state, so that the baby is not faced with more than his immature mind and body can handle. It may be that for most adults, too, there is an equivalent protective shield that needs to be in place in some form or another so that experience, not necessarily particularly traumatic experience, but the everyday ebb and flow of ordinary life and relationships, can be digested. So it is that many of us need to withdraw for a while to think our own thoughts, to muse on what has happened to us recently or what we imagine might be about to confront us in the future. Of course, there is the ultimate being alone of sleep that everyone retreats into, and within that state, the particular form of being alone with our own thoughts that dreaming constitutes.