Solitude has been exalted by history’s greatest writers as the foundation of enlightenment and, as would naturally follow from this newfound wisdom, good writing. One of my favourite authors, Gibran Kahlil Gibran, reflects on solitude as “a silent storm that breaks down all our dead branches [yet] sends our living roots deeper into the living heart of the living earth.” This kind of solitude is creative, self-reflexive, and critical. It is very unlike the isolating solitude you and I may be experiencing today: empty, detached, and quiet despite all the movement, noise and people surrounding us.
It’s safe to say that we are more connected than human civilization has ever been. A short 3 decades ago, had I told my grandmother that she would be able to send me pictures and voice notes instantaneously from half-way across the planet, she would have laughed off my silly childhood faith in that kind of impossible magic. Today, my grandmother can enjoy a roller coaster ride with me in high definition 360° virtual reality if she wants to, and it wouldn’t even surprise her.
Our connected new world has allowed us to bridge global distances. At the same time, however, it has built invisible walls between those of us in spacial proximity to one another.
I am writing this as I take my train ride to work. It’s a beautiful half-hour trip, with some breathtaking views of the suburbs, although nobody seems to care to look out the windows. Every single person, save for 3 sleepers, is staring at a smartphone. We share this space with each other every morning, most of us choosing the exact same train cart at the exact same time, but we never speak to one another. I often look at people and make the effort to smile, catching them completely off guard. They awkwardly look away then tentatively look back at me as if to check if I really meant to smile at them.
This is an unhealthy kind of solitude, and yet we all encourage it, myself included. Despite my more pronounced effort to reach out to strangers, I have been conditioned by my society to lay low. Even asking a coworker how he is with genuine interest in his response elicits confusion. A friendly email requesting a lunch with a woman who works one floor below mine earned me an unnecessarily defensive response: “May I know what, exactly, is the purpose of your lunch request?” Needless to say, I did not pursue that professional relationship, and she probably never recognized the missed opportunity.
Those of us working in offices commonly experience very little human contact, save for disjointed water cooler conversations and a few meetings. Some of us work in a cubicle all day long and don’t get to speak to anyone at all. I remember, during my first career job, calling a friend at lunchtime and realizing I had not heard my own voice all day, despite being awake for over 6 hours! Even as a student, I often navigated from one class to another, each with 400 people in the auditorium, and said nothing except “excuse me, is that seat taken?”
So, how do we manifest more constructive solitude in our lives without succumbing to the absurd loneliness that arises despite being surrounded by people? How do we start building healthier social interactions and relationships?
- BE the Change
Resisting the impulse to conform to the status quo has been tremendously helpful in earning me a socially balanced daytime life. I learned that we have to be proactive in creating the changes we want to manifest in our lives. No truer words were ever spoken than Mahatma Gandhi’s:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
In the evenings and on the weekends, between my husband, two dogs, family, and friends, I am always in good company. In the daytime, however, I am confined to a 2X2m cube. To offset this, I have worked towards improving my team’s culture and, together, we were able to design a new office space (using existing furniture and incurring very minor additional expenses) that would give us a more open space where we can work on projects, have team meetings, and even eat lunch together. It took us quite a long time to figure out how to balance the creative solitude we all need to maintain flow in our work, with the team culture that we also need to remain sane and productive. This has had a tremendous impact on our ability to interact with one another more openly.
Now, am I just lucky that I happen to have this kind of team?
We are not all social butterflies. In fact, all of us like our space and time. Some of us are even resistant to unnecessary interaction. However, with persistence, a good attitude, and good intentions, even the most strictly self-sufficient of us have become more intrigued by the idea of investing in intentional and genuine professional interactions. BE the change, but also be patient with others and respect their needs and space!
2. Put Your Phone AWAY – and Smile
Putting your phone away grants you the opportunity to recognize moments that lend themselves to positive and constructive interaction. You will notice things you never noticed before: a man in crutches trying to carry his groceries, a mother trying to balance her screaming twins and a stroller, or someone walking behind you who might appreciate it if you held the door open for a few more seconds. Use these moments strategically to offer a helping hand to individuals in your community – and SMILE.
I cannot promise you that this will always work out well. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, you might get a mumbled thanks or a nod. You may even find yourself at the other side of unwarranted anger: “Do you think, because I’m a woman, I need the door held for me?!” Do not let these situations deter you. You are waiting for IMPACT! If you get even one new friend out of your small gestures of kindness, you have won.
3. Ask “How Are You?” and WAIT for a response
We are all guilty of asking how someone is while walking past them, without slowing down to hear the answer. I do this all the time, and have to consciously take a breath and tell myself to slow down to a halt and wait for the response. This little change has made a huge impact on my relationships because, surprisingly enough, it catches people off guard! Over time, they have also started demonstrating a genuine interest in my well-being. We reap what we sow!
These three key steps are only a few in a thousand mile journey to intentionally building genuine and lasting relationships. There are plenty of other insights and strategies that we can all benefit from. If you have any recommendations of methods that work for you, please share them below. If you have read this to the end and typically would remain a silent onlooker, I challenge you to reach out and say hello to me.
And remember… we design our own luck!