For the holidays this year, give yourself the gift of solitude

Life as Laboratory
Life as Laboratory

Ponte Vecchio, for lack of a less hackneyed word, glittered.

Florence’s most famous bridge shone with literal light—from the orange-yellow lampposts, the bright jewelers’ shops sitting atop its weathered stones—but also with an otherworldly quiet, a kind of blinding, frozen silence I hadn’t come across in a long time.

It was Thanksgiving, and I was alone. Instead of going home for the holiday this year, I’d opted to take a week-long trip to Italy. The decision was cost-effective—it proved oddly cheaper to fly round-trip to Italy from New York and stay there for five nights than to travel to my parents’ house in Arizona and back—and also somewhat necessary. I, like many in America and possibly all over, was still reeling from the presidential election and all the unfettered chaos in its wake. I left the newsroom at four in the morning on Nov. 9, and a bone-deep tiredness had followed me around ever since.

Late on Thanksgiving night, on that near-empty bridge halfway across the world, as the clumps of tourists thinned out and the shops began blinking their lights off, there was nothing but shadow and peace. I stood there in the dark for I don’t know how long, watching the water—alone, anonymous, happy.

We’re told the holidays each year are a time for family, familiar faces, for crowding together and celebrating the company of others. Often, that’s the opposite of what we need.

A scientific case for silence

You’ll find me this Christmas on a bus winding down the Eastern Seaboard to Washington, DC; for New Year’s, I’m taking Amtrak’s day-long Adirondack train—an 11.5-hour (likely longer, given that delays on Amtrak are more the norm than not) affair beginning at Manhattan’s Penn Station and dropping its weary-eyed passengers off at Gare Centrale in Montréal.

A few friends will greet me here and there, but for the most part I’ll be by myself on these trips. “Won’t you feel lonely?” several people have asked.

The answer is no, not really. One of the peculiar learned abilities of only children is our comfort swimming endlessly with our own thoughts; solitude presents itself to me as more of an opportunity than an occasion for fear. And as a chronically over-thinking writer with plenty of daily, small neuroses, I could also likely do with a few more stretches of focused silence in life.

Research shows that the holidays—despite being touted as a time of unceasing joy—trigger feelings of stress, anxiety, depression in the best of us. Sometimes even physical sickness. Traveling across the US during peak national holiday dates, as my colleague Leslie Josephs points out, is often nothing short of a financial disaster: plane ticket prices skyrocket, crowds everywhere double, and that’s on top of having to deal with the mess of coordinating family plans and group trips in the first place.

There are, obviously, benefits to the otherwise grim routine of holiday season. Most of us don’t get nearly enough time with the people we love, the people who raised us. But there’s the whole rest of the year for that. Unless you’re religious, or have to abide by a strict work calendar, flimsy are the reasons to crowd all your socialization into a rushed, contrived clutter of days as the rest of the country tries to do exactly the same.

We’re in a time right now that can maybe best be described as anxious—a jittery era of sensory overload, of claustrophobia, of being surrounded by people while also being completely alone, thanks to ubiquitous technology, thanks to the unique breathlessness of social media. So there’s really no better time to leave that all behind than on the very days we’re most prodded by brands and businesses to take part.

To the woods?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” begins Thoreau’s oft-cited essay on wilderness, on solitude. It doesn’t have to get that extreme (or that cliched—I’m not advocating the path of the angst-ridden gap-year high school senior discovering themselves). Staying away from traditional holiday madness doesn’t necessarily mean locking oneself away in a cabin without electricity.

Moderation is, as always, possible: a balance between diving headfirst into a 25-person family reunion and setting fire to your phone in the woods. Traveling to nearby national parks is one such way. Taking cheap buses and trains at off-peak, usually undesirable travel times, as I’m opting to do this year, is another. Finishing a set of half-read books. Going to a concert alone. Anyone who’s ever taken a personal day from work to wrap themselves under a mountain of blankets and watch a few hours of television can understand the calm of being temporarily and pointedly solitary, squirreled away from the world, free from commitment.

And the get-togethers, the gift-giving, the celebrations of other people’s company—they can always be saved for another time. One that doesn’t feel nearly as forced.

“It’s been a hell of a year,” news articles, friends, coworkers, or just about everyone in the world keeps saying. Sighing. Groaning. One thing to not underestimate is the antidote of space.

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