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 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 Americans, 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, there on that near-empty bridge halfway across the world, as the clumps of tourists thinned out and the shops began blinking their lights off, I felt a relief. I felt 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. And often, that’s the opposite of what we might 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. I planned it that way. “Won’t you feel lonely?” several people have asked.

The answer is no, not really. As an only child, I’ve always been comfortable being with my own thoughts, and as a writer, I think of solitude as more of an opportunity than an occasion for fear. As a chronic over-thinker with plenty of daily, small neuroses, I could also probably do with a few more stretches of focused silence in my 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, can also be 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.

Obviously, there are benefits to seeing family. Most of us don’t get nearly enough time with our parents and other loved ones. But there’s the whole rest of the year for that. Unless you’re religious, or have to follow a strict work calendar, there’s no reason 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 live in a weird time right now—of sensory overload, of claustrophobia, of being surrounded by people while also being completely alone, thanks to 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.

There are ways to moderation: 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. We shouldn’t underestimate the antidote of space.

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