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Seven life lessons from a modern-day hermit

The writer Sara Maitland has lived alone in rural Scotland for 20 years, often going days without communicating with the wider world. But far from being lonely, Sara revels in her reclusive lifestyle – and thinks that more of us could benefit from a healthy dose of solitude.

So what can we learn from her remarkable example? Here are some of the valuable life lessons Sara shared in a rare public appearance at the Free Thinking Festival.

Writer Sara Maitland speaking at the Free Thinking Festival 2018

1. Loneliness is a question of context

We need to sort out the words solitude, loneliness, and alone. For me, “alone” is a very straightforward description: “There is no-one here in this instant.” It may be a long alone or a short alone, but you're alone.

Solitude is when you enjoy that, and choose that, and do that. Loneliness is when you don't choose it and it makes you miserable.

What drives loneliness – which can happen in a crowd, it's a completely different thing from being alone – is the sense that you can't break out of that, you can't make contact. Were that to be my condition, then maybe I would feel lonely.

2. It’s hard to be lonely if you feel part of a community

In cities, there are lots of people, but you don't know who any of them are. [Whereas] I know, by name, everybody who lives within ten miles of me.

When we had the big freeze... everybody's water supply froze up. "Morning!" I heard. Someone on a quad bike brought me 25 litres of water, hand-pumped from a deep well. They were delivering water to all eight households [in the area].

[So] in one sense I'm not alone at all, because although we're all more spread out than we would be in a town, we all know each other. We all know what other people need.

The surprisingly public lives of medieval hermits

Historian John Henry Clay shines a light on the problems faced by would-be recluses.

3. Different people need different amounts of solitude to feel happy

Two years ago I had major surgery. My children kept turning up and saying: “Are you alright, mummy?” My doctor was saying: “I want to see you at least every four or five days”. [And] I'm saying: “Go away!” I felt an immense sense of being invaded by a particular sense of love and support, which I found not helpful to me.

There are people on both sides of the line: people who would flourish with more aloneness, and people who would flourish with less aloneness. People are fundamentally different to each other.

The amount of being alone that nourishes your creativity, for example – or your spiritual life, or your happiness and wellbeing, or your fitness, or any of the other goods – is going to be different person by person.

4. Society’s attitude to solitude can be unhelpful for individuals

What we've done, I fear, is set up a model which sees extroversion as healthier than introversion. Although, rather bizarrely, [it also] sees autonomy as better than dependence.

What it is to be a human being is to be very, very adaptable. Our success as a species is because we could adapt. We're all different – that's the deal.

5. Even hermits have telephones

I would be sad [without one], because I have two adult children whom I completely love, and I would like them to be able to get hold of me. But I frequently don't answer the phone. I have an extremely good answering machine.

It's not that I never speak to anybody, but for me, the less I do it, the more I flourish. I spend most of my time wishing that fewer people contacted me – ranging from people who want to sell me double glazing that I don't want, to people inviting me to parties that I don't want to go to.

Why they haven't noticed – after 20 years – that I never come to their parties is a big mystery.

6. Online communication is convenient, but leaves a lot to be desired

There's clearly something wrong with our internet communications, because they do quickly get so vile. [It’s got to be something] about not seeing the person that [makes] you say these unspeakable things. Things you wouldn’t say in the pub – not even when everybody's drunk.

7. Children should be taught to enjoy solitude

We're doing a very worrying thing: we’re not bringing up small people to believe that loneliness might be a pleasure. If I had one way to address the loneliness problem, it would be that nobody ever uses “Go to your room!” as a punishment.

Instead, they should use it as a reward. "Darling, you've been so helpful all afternoon, you can go to your room and do what you want for half an hour." Children [now] are going to be lonely, because they have none of those skills in aloneness.

Sara Maitland and fellow writer Lionel Shriver join medieval historian John Henry Clay to contemplate the many sides to solitude. Listen to their discussion – Are We Afraid of Being Alone? – at the Free Thinking Festival 2018, which explored ideas and topics around the theme of The One and the Many.