Swedish film star Greta Garbo was widely acclaimed for her beauty and elegance. She left behind a lasting impression in such films as the 1927 Flesh and the Devil and the 1935 screen version of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina. She retired from the movie industry in 1941 at the peak of her popularity and success, explaining that she “had made enough faces.” In a classic example of life imitating art, she followed the statement of her character in the 1932 film Grand Hotel who said: “I want to be alone.”
For most, being alone is a pitiable condition. Anthropologists like Desmond Morris have long argued that human beings are the pre-eminent social animals. We define ourselves by the groups of which we are a part, whether family, profession, cause or nation. We crave companionship. And when we are devoid of human company, we find acceptable substitutes in pets. Human beings are the only creatures on the planet who tend and care for another species out of a desire for companionship alone.
Of course, isolation is sometimes in order. This is especially true when it comes to communicable diseases. People who are suspected of a disease that might harm others are kept in isolation. Interestingly, this idea finds an early voice in the Torah. A person suspected of contracting an infectious skin disease is removed from camp and isolated for seven days while the priest determines the course of treatment (Leviticus 14:8).
In Judaism’s mystical tradition, the idea of isolation was not restricted to physical ailments. Human beings need time to be alone. As the Hasidic adage goes: One who does not have an hour to himself every day is not a person.” In ritual practice, some Hasidic masters expounded on the virtue of “hitbodedut,” praying and meditating alone. Many Jews have discovered that praying at home rather than in synagogue due to COVID-19 lockdowns afforded them an opportunity to pray at their own pace and with varying emphases, allowing them a deeper and more meaningful prayer experience. As much as we need others, we need time for ourselves.
A final thought: alone-ness is not the same as loneliness. It is possible for a person to feel lonely even when in a community and it is possible for a person to have no trace of loneliness even when sequestered from others. To be alone can be a regenerative experience.