March 14, 2020
Technically it’s still the high season on this side of Thailand. My shorefront hostel on Koh Lanta, though, is empty. I’m literally the only guest. Old Town is a ghost town—but I’m not complaining.
I’m staying here for a few days because I needed a break from the social pressures of (laugh if you must) island life on Koh Lipe.
I sit alone reading as the tide comes in—an ocean of force behind the waves as they surge closer. As the water comes up, the view improves slowly but predictably. Just beyond my deserted patio are two very dead trees; soon their bare trunks and gnarled roots will be hidden beneath the swell. A few small boats rest on top of the mud. We all wait patiently for the rising tide.
The Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, echos from an unseen mosque somewhere up the dusty, palm-lined street. My chair becomes the meeting place for the sounds of the mosque and the wind from the sea—both are comforting and haunting at the same time.
My time alone on Koh Lanta is not something I would’ve enjoyed, and certainly not sought out, just a few years ago. For much of my adult life I’ve lived alone, and I have consistently traveled alone, but I also put a lot of effort into avoiding even short periods of actual solitude.
An underlying sense of social anxiety and self-consciousness droned continuously, disturbing the hush of my new, often peaceful surroundings, making it difficult to spend time in my own company.
The methods I chose to alleviate this discomfort were often reckless, inconsiderate, even immoral; and the relief generated by this range of vices, if any, was always trivial and temporary.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Blaise Pascal wrote.
My life became unsustainable, and, eventually, I had no other choice but to embrace the initial trepidation of an empty room. It wasn’t pleasant—certainly not at first. But, just as the tide goes out, the pain I felt slowly ebbed away, too.
Amidst this transition, I realized something invaluable about myself: the attention I once craved and bustling environments I regularly sought out were actually making me miserable.
“There is no insurmountable solitude,” Pablo Neruda said during his 1971 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.”
Friends, old and new, would not readily paint me as an introvert, or someone who is pestered by social anxiety. On occasion, I even fool myself. The gregarious, humorous, and personable side of me presents itself so freely I forget how physically and emotionally draining sociability can be.
Working as a diver also requires lots of energized human interaction. I absolutely love my job, though, so this open, sociable behavior indeed comes naturally; I’m certainly not pretending or posturing. But I can only live this way for a short time—I need solitude to recharge.
A healthy, often required amount of time spent alone differs from person to person. My mandatory self-allotment is half. I can become irritable and distracted if I don’t get either the day or the evening to myself.
“I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself,” novelist Haruki Murakami wrote in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. “To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone . . . I could always think of things to do by myself.”
For me this means regularly declining invitations to a range of social activities; it means saying no so often my friends stop asking. It means consciously risking social ostracism.
It’s not that I don’t want and/or need to communicate and connect with other people, though. Even if I never intended to show up, my feelings would still be hurt were I not invited. I just prefer the connection to be more intimate, deep, and organic—something hard to achieve in a clamorous social setting.
Koh Lipe (Thai for Paper Island) spans just two square miles (five square kilometers), and, after six months, it feels like everyone knows everyone to varying degrees. On the days I want human interaction, being recognized—waved or smiled at, approached and spoken to—feels wonderful. I feel at peace, at home. But when I don’t want to socialize, when I just want to stay inside my own head, these inescapable exchanges can be tiring and irksome.
To strive for intermittent, controllable anonymity borders on irrational (I know) but I think other introverts will understand my rationale. And if this doesn’t color me as some kind of social-masochist—I fear this next part will.
Alas, I thoroughly believe everyone can benefit from feeling (at least for a while) hopelessly alone, and, at some point, everyone should go through the experience: To have no close friends near by, no romantic partner to check in with; to wake up not expecting to hear from anyone, nor have anyone expecting to hear from you.
I’ve given this same advice to people in the past who, at the time, thought I was being cold and uncaring—but thanked me years later.
Sure, it will be uncomfortable as hell—but much of life is. The poignancy of pure loneliness strips us down to bare bones, giving us the opportunity to rebuild, stronger than before, and supported from within. “Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent,” Murakami wrote.
Embracing, even enjoying solitude does not mean you dislike people. It’s quite the opposite, actually: The key to introversion is more love—not less. Regularly and voluntarily self-isolating (a trending issue at the moment) isn’t about rejecting others, it’s about accepting yourself.
In Quest Under Capricorn (1963), David Attenborough interviews a man named Roger Jose who’d been living alone in the Northern Territory of Australia for over 30 years. “I used to live in towns once with other people and got on perfectly alright,” Jose tells him. “I came out to the wilderness looking for peace. This here is as far as I can go.”
I’ve also decided to relocate to a place more calm, quiet, and rural. Koh Mook (Pearl Island) is not far from Koh Lipe, just over 130 miles (210 kilometers)—but, at the moment, it sure feels like this here is as far as I can go.
If you move around enough, people can’t help but ask you what you’re searching for. I never quite know what to tell them. I’m not looking for anything; I know the fundamental elements that make me who I am are inherent, innate, inborn even.
I’m soft-spoken, bookish, artistic, and romantic—I’m an introvert. It took a kind of exile to discover this, and time to accept it, but it’s the truest thing in my life.
Solitude reveals our true nature, not to others but to ourselves. “Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality,” Susan Cain wrote in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. “Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama.”
Even as reclusive and monkish as my life has become, it remains quite full and exciting. And I certainty do not wish to trade places with any past, more uninhibited version of myself.
I once said, to someone very close to me, “I am an intense, emotional man.” At the time I was trying to justify my increasing volatility. Now, though, my rich emotions and intensity occur safely within. In my head, I’m constantly falling in love, conversing, and doing battle—with others and myself. That’s being an introvert.