Solitude Deprivation, Single Parenting, and the Life We’re Looking For

Several years ago I argued that while digital privacy is a worrisome and complicated issue, our physical privacy is far superior to what was available in the Middle Ages. But there was one thing I hadn’t considered. While we may have better physical privacy, do we really have more solitude?

Let me begin answering this question by taking a look at professor Cal Newport’s definition of solitude in his book Digital Minimalism:

“Many people mistakenly associate this term [solitude] with physical separation—requiring, perhaps, that you hike to a remote cabin miles from another human being. This flawed definition introduces a standard of isolation that can be impractical for most to satisfy on any sort of regular basis. As Kethledge and Erin explain, however, solitude is about what’s happening in your brain, not the environment around you. Accordingly, they define it to be a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.”

“You can enjoy solitude in a crowded coffee shop, on a subway car, or, as President Lincoln discovered at his cottage, while sharing your lawn with two companies of Union soldiers, so long as your mind is left to grapple only with its own thoughts. On the other hand, solitude can be banished in even the quietest setting if you allow input from other minds to intrude.” (93-94, emphasis mine)

(Interestingly, this explains a quote by French philosopher Montaigne I shared a while ago: “That is true solitude: it can be enjoyed in towns and royal courts.”)

Newport goes on to reiterate what researchers and philosophers have been saying for years now. Solitude gives us space to contemplate and gain insight into complex problems; to process and regulate our emotions; to think creatively about whatever project we’re engaged in. In a sense, solitude is like sleep or rest, an essential part of our well-being that allows our minds to recharge and look at the world from fresh angles.

As you can no doubt guess, Newport then observes that modern technology, in particular the ubiquitous smartphone, poses a unique threat to this practice:

“The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life. Thoreau and Storr worried about people enjoying less solitude. We must now wonder if people might forget this state of being altogether.”(101, emphasis mine)

Newport labels this trend solitude deprivation: “A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds” (103). He then notes several egregious consequences. One is the rising number of anxiety disorders among teenagers. Another is that even a moderate addiction to constant connectivity—which describes most of us in the United States—imposes serious burdens on our mental and physical health. “Remove this solitude from our lives,” Newport recently wrote, “and we’re not only bound to get twitchy and anxious, but we miss out on much of the subtle but deep value generated by a wandering mind.”

***

It’s ironic that this trend is growing at a moment in our history when we are arguably best positioned to enjoy more quality time alone to ourselves. Generally speaking, we have more wealth, safety, control over our environment, and various other advantages over the medieval serf.

At the same time, we possess these supercharged devices that we shudder to imagine ourselves without. This isn’t to say we should regress to the Middle Ages, but it is a fact that we live in a much noisier time. Which in a sense is so obvious as to be a meaningless comment. The grating bustle introduced by the industrial revolution in the 19th century has long been condemned by cultural critics and philosophers. What is astounding, though, is that today we experience yet another layer of noise piled on top of this: the dings, popups, flashes, and vibrations from our smart devices. It is “soft” noise, yes; it is not as though there is a jack-hammer outside our windows. But it is in at least one respect more insidious. Unlike the passive noise of cars, planes, and machines, which you can find ways to tune out, the digital noise on your phone is carefully engineered to have you do things at specific moments in time. Social media companies know that the most precious commodity in the industry is your attention, and so they exploit as many of your emotional and psychological vulnerabilities as possible to capture it. Given this basic fact of smartphone design, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that medieval serfs would have enjoyed more access to solitude than us.

There are of course important qualifications. As Richard Winston notes in Life in the Middle Ages, “The border between work and private life was fluid. The worskshop was not far from home, sometimes under the same roof” (page 68). Chores were constant: For all their holidays, medieval serfs had a back-breaking existence. And as Barbara Tuchman wrote in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, “Beneath the cry of protest much of medieval life was supportive because it was lived collectively in infinite numbers of groups, orders, associations, brotherhoods. Never was man less alone.” Can you really be alone with your thoughts when you’re constantly working or drinking with your guild buddies? Maybe it depends partly on the chore you’re doing—or maybe it is the wrong question. Even with all their obligations, medieval peasants surely felt the urge to be alone, and this urge would have been easier to satisfy in a time when smart devices weren’t pounding you with notifications.

***

Whatever the case, for all his critiques of technology, Newport does not propose abandoning your smartphone. (Well, not as a core digital minimalist strategy anyways.) Drawing from Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond, he instead argues that we need to develop the ability to oscillate between solitude and community. To this end he endorses a range of practices, from the intentional pursuit of solitude (example: go on long walks, write notes to yourself) to joining social groups (example: CrossFit) that offer richer forms of interpersonal community life than social media ever can.

Now, I love these suggestions and agree that they are better alternatives to social media. But another part of me—the more cynical part of me—is inclined to call bullshit. I am by no means underprivileged, but I am a single father of two small children. My free time is spent doing chores, reading bedtime stories, and scraping poop off urine-stained underwear. I have even begun to apply a “single parent test” for all the self-help advice the world throws at me. Is this sound advice—and if so, can I realistically make it a priority given my parental obligations and limited resources? There are types of advice which only the leisure class and/or stable families can afford. Finding more time for long walks and writing in your journal sure feel like some of them.

And yet is my own test all that sound? Sure, I am shorter on disposable time than childless adults, but time scarcity isn’t always the most helpful criterion for how one ought to live. Taking a cue from philosophy, I am supposed to be asking what is the good life, anyways? What type of people should my children become, and how do I orient our energies towards that?

Newport does in fact encourage this line of questioning. At various points in his book he stresses the importance of assessing your values, then radically altering your relationship with technology to serve those values. The problem is that this assumes we know what our values should be. As philosophers have been telling us for a long long time—heck, even UX designers are saying it—people are notoriously bad at knowing what they want and rather terrible at doing what they say.

No doubt realizing this, Newport spends a lot space contending that investing more of your time in pursuing meaningful leisure and community than engaging with social media is the better path to a happy and fulfilled life. He presents this thesis as objectively true based on real evidence, and in my opinion he is absolutely right. Nevertheless, I imagine plenty of people will not even bother to pick up his book in the first place; or if they do, they might simply shrug and say, “That doesn’t work for me”; or “Investing time in my digital social network is one of my highest priorities” even in the face of abundant evidence that it shouldn’t be. Or even more simply, you might agree with Newport’s argument intellectually but deny the problem is all that serious in your case, or lack the internal willpower to change your ingrained behavior. As one philosopher put it, “Habit is stronger than reason.”

***

This is where I depart somewhat from Newport in search of something more robust than beginning with “values”. Incidentally, English professor Alan Jacobs recently offered some useful insights here in response to a critical review of a book about technology called The Life We’re Looking For by Andy Crouch. Let’s take a little detour to see what he says.

Disclaimer: I have not read The Life We’re Looking For. However, I have read Andy Crouch’s earlier book on technology, The Tech-Wise Family, in which he argues that families ought to relegate “easy-everywhere” technology to the fringes of life and push “culture-making” activities to the forefront. From what I’ve gathered, Crouch raises similar points in The Life We’re Looking For but takes a step back to consider what it means to be human (ten thousand foot answer: we are persons made for loving relationship), and to present a framework for how to live a good life in relation to the technological forces that so often work against our best interests.

Got that? Okay.

Now, in his review of Crouch’s argument, another guy, Brad East, concedes that what Crouch is saying has considerable merit. The problem is that it is a hopelessly lost cause. The forces of technology are too strong, and we’re simply too attached to our devices. To argue for households and families to make radical changes is unrealistic. East asks: “Does [Crouch’s] vision apply to any but the valiant few?”

As a single parent, that question resonates with me. When you’re exhausted from your job, emotionally taxed from being present with your children, and overwhelmed by a long list of chores, you are going to want to succumb to the convenience of digital technology. But here is what Alan Jacobs had to say in reply to East:

I see the core purpose of [The Life We’re Looking For] to be not a denunciation or even a critique of technology but rather an attempt to orient us towards a vision of the kind of life that we want, individually and collectively, with the emphasis that if we really understand ‘the life we are looking for’ we will be able to alter our technological environment, albeit in incremental ways. That doesn’t seem to me to require heroism; in fact, I would say that it’s pretty sober: our choices will not bring down the power of what Brad calls the Digital and what Andy (I think more accurately) calls Mammon – the Digital is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mammon – but I think that those choices can create a subtle and over time significant redirection of our energies.

Jacobs develops this point by connecting it to the theology of St. Augustine. He goes on to add:

For Augustine the initial question to be asked of anyone is: Which way are you facing? And I think what Andy is trying to do in his book is get people facing in the right direction – towards the life they really desire, as opposed to the life that Mammon wants to sell them – so that they may begin their pilgrimage, become true wayfarers. Wayfarers often have a long road ahead of them, but one of the best reasons to read Augustine, and to think along with that great saint, is to be reminded that what matters most is not the distance from our goal but whether we are facing it. Even if we never achieve “the good life” — in the Christian sense or even in a Stoic sense — surely we can today orient ourselves a little more accurately towards it than we did yesterday.

***

Speaking now from my Christian point of view, I think what Crouch and Jacobs are offering is both within the realm of practical possibility, and more constructive than starting with your values. Of course, the two concepts are arguably linked. For example, you may say your values determine the direction you’re facing, or vice versa. But the term “values” is rather ambiguous. After all, it is possible (whether you are a person of faith or not) to have values that aren’t all that … valuable. Yet the guise of them being “a “values” dissuades close, critical introspection and relieves you of much pressure to search out the truth. After all, who am I to judge your values? And who is anyone else to judge mine? But if you think of yourself as a wayfarer in life who has to be going somewhere, then of course the direction you’re facing matters. You can be facing—and going in—the wrong direction, and other people besides you can notice that (and, if they’re good friends, suggest a course correction). There’s an urgency and accountability to the metaphor which I think carries more motivational force, and yet also a flexibility which lets you take things one step at a time without being crippled with guilt about your progress.

As just one very simple and practical example from the world of parenting, it is profoundly tempting to let fun and convenience drive much of what you do with your children. Kids want to have fun, parents want to give them good memories. But we also need to get things done around the house. Solution: Place the kids in front of a screen so that they stay out of trouble and won’t be insanely bored while we parents do our thing.

I think it is fairly obvious that this is not the “good life”. Fun, TV, and Instagram have their places, but kids who get entertainment around every corner grow to expect it around every corner; and they will be formed by what they are consuming in ways that are probably antithetical to the good life that they should have and, eventually, learn to pursue on their own. Again speaking from my perspective as a believer, I realized (all too slowly) that if I were to continue with these sorts of habits, I couldn’t possibly hope for them to develop into mature, loving, courageous followers of Jesus who care for their neighbors and the common good.

So I began to change some things. I hid the kids’ tablet and later removed it completely. I imposed a 30-minute limit on their screen time each day. I slowly introduced more chores into their routines, as well as more play dates and outdoor activities. I got a book to help us think about the pleasures that await us outside of screens. Step by step, inch by inch, my kids have become just a little more accustomed to occupying themselves with less screen time each day, whether by doing arts and crafts, visiting with friends, playing with toys, etc. Miraculously they have even been known to go through some days without turning on a screen at all (!).

I/we still fail a lot; there is a lot of pain and frustration in this approach. And while some aspects have gotten easier with time, I expect other aspects to become more difficult as my kids grow older and see their best friends immersed in social media. To that extent I sympathize with Brad East’s skepticism. But despite these challenges, I believe we are at least facing what I think is by all accounts a more fulfilling life. Yes, this is an approach that places greater demands on parents’ time, but as Alan Jacobs also once said: “Maybe the first thing we need to learn how to repair is our disordered sense of time — time is not a scarce resource but rather a gift.”

Automat, by Edward Hopper. Source: The Art of Solitude. Can you picture yourself going to get a cup of coffee without your phone sitting on the table next to you?
Solitude, by Richard Wilson. Circa 1762/1770. Source: Wikimedia. A beautiful portrait of solitude outdoors. But as Cal Newport says, we mustn’t restrict solitude to physical places. It is also—perhaps fundamentally so—a state of mind.

3 thoughts on “Solitude Deprivation, Single Parenting, and the Life We’re Looking For

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