The Time We Spend Alone

girl in cage with open door magical illustration xuan loc xuan

We spend a good deal of our lives alone whether we like it or not. Even if we are not solitary people, even if we are social butterflies.

I’m talking about the time in between the days and the hours when we have to do things, to go to work, to go to school, to meet people.

The time when we have to wait for something, or rest, or weather a storm.

girl stepping on lotus flowers magical illustration xuan loc xuan

Some of us may spend more time alone than with others, even if others are nearby.

What do we do with this time that, by choice, nature, or circumstances we spend alone?

Do we fill it with idle thoughts and plans?

With trivial activities?

With longing for love or other people?

Do we treat it with patient impatience, as if we were in a kind of waiting room to a new phase in our life?

Maybe we do all of these at times. Maybe we cannot help it.

But the time we spend alone can be some of the most useful and valuable that we get in this life.

“How can you hear your soul if everyone is talking?”

Mary Doria Russell

It can give us the chance to pause and see life more deeply.

See our bad habits and negative thought patterns.

Compare where we are now to where we feel we should be.

The time we spend alone is not a means to an end.

It’s a valuable resource we can try to make the most of us, each in our way.

“We need solitude, because when we’re alone, we’re free from obligations, we don’t need to put on a show, and we can hear our own thoughts.”

Tamim Ansary

Perhaps this is easier for introverts than for other people.

But even if spending time alone bothers you and you like to avoid it as much as possible, you can still make the most of this time.

Read, write, meditate, rest, develop a skill, learn to play an instrument, learn to dance, live among your memories, pursue a passion, do anything that feel you have to do.

Don’t let your mind, your narrative self, or your neurochemistry get in the way.

I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.

Henry David Thoreau

girl sitting on green flowers magical illustration xuan loc xuan

Give the time you spend alone any shape you want to give it.

At the end of our lives, the time we spend alone is important.

When we look back on our lives ten, twenty, fifty years from now, the time we spend alone will carry a lot of weight.

We shouldn’t squander it with negative thoughts, with self-sabotaging, with longing for what isn’t.

“The holiest of all holidays are those Kept by ourselves in silence and apart; The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

girl floating on her back in boat on sea of sleep magical illustration xuan loc xuan

All illustrations by Xuan Loc Xuan.

On Making Time When We Need It (Fast Time Versus Slow Time)

Remember the last time you worked on something you didn’t want to work on or studied something you didn’t enjoy studying?

Or when you were at the doctor, waiting in a long queue for your turn?

Didn’t time just drag on? Didn’t time seem to congeal around you, to hold you suspended like an insect in amber?

And now remember the last time you did something fun.

Or watched a movie you really liked.

Or spent an evening with friends, laughing and sharing stories with them.

Didn’t time fly then? Didn’t it have wings?

Time is not something we have or don’t have. Not entirely.

Time is a state of mind, a neurochemical equation—habit multiplied by newness divided by enjoyment.

When we do familiar things, time passes quickly—if we enjoy them. Or slowly, if we don’t—after all, nothing slows down time more than unpleasant activities, or pain.

Newness also slows down time.

Imagine yourself exploring a new place or talking with a person you just met. Even though the clock is ticking, you are bombarded with stimuli that dilate time and add depth to it.

That’s the sort of time memories are made of.

Technology speeds up routine patterns of behavior, speeds up time.

Writing by hand slows it down. Sitting still and meditating also slows it down.

When I want to make my days last longer, I stay away from my computer, from my phone. I try to deviate from routine patterns of behavior. If I have to do something familiar, I try to do it in a different way.

Often I don’t succeed—fast time, in which I do familiar things in a familiar way, gets the better of me.

But slow time, conscious time infused with newness, is something we can make. We make it when we pause and relax, away from screens. Or when we explore new things, make discoveries.

Whether or not we have time depends not only on our schedules—it depends on what we do and how we do it.


What would you like to have more time for this year?

Time, Our Mutual Foe

Woman walking in autumn original watercolor painting

Have you seen
a beautiful woman
rushing past you,
her hair waving goodbye,
her skirt flapping about her
like wings?
Was not time
doing her
a great injustice?
Was not time 
mocking you?
Time undressed her of you.
Time did to her
everything he wanted to.


Image: Original watercolor painting (c) AntigoniArtGallery