Alone Time

This passage from early on in Tamim Ansary's West of Kabul, East of New York has stayed with me a long time. Ansary is explaining how it felt to grow up in a traditional Afghan family:

"If I'm too much with other people, I need to balance it with some downtime. Most of the people I know are like this. We need solitude, because when we're alone, we're free from obligations, we don't need to put on a show, and we can hear our own thoughts."

"My Afghan relatives achieved this same state by being with one another. Being at home with the group gave them the satisfactions we associate with solitude – ease, comfort, and the freedom to let down one's guard. The reason for this is hard to convey, but I'm going to try. Namely, our group self was just as real as our individual selves, perhaps more so."

This seemed a radical idea to me when I first read the book -- that there could be people for whom the state of togetherness was the "same state" that solitary downtime was for me. I've made many attempts to imagine that state.

Cultures and individuals vary in how much need is felt for solitary versus communal/ familial downtime. A writer, clearly, is always going to be someone who needs a vast amount of solitary downtime: I feel most frustrated when mine is impinged upon, when it's been too long since I could last hear my thoughts. That's part of why a day performing data entry in a cubicle can sometimes be less stressful than a familial voyage to a place of recreation. And that's part of why I'm not at a demonstration right now -- although perhaps I would be if I believed that demonstrations in the Bay Area had any influence at all on events elsewhere.

Will those closest to me remember me as someone who was always fretting about needing more alone time?

4 thoughts on “Alone Time”

  1. I for one, don't buy it. I was raised in a family and a culture where privacy was for the privileged few, and individuality was a joke. A family and culture where being alone means something is horribly wrong, and yet, I know deep down that I need it. That being with my family, my "tribe" is nothing like being alone. Nothing. We all could use quiet time. It's just that some of us aren't privileged enough to seek it out. I can't help but to be 100% sure that those Afghans probably, all, at some point, wished their moms, dads, siblings, grandparents would go away, just for a day, so that they can be themselves for just a small period of time.

  2. It's certainly possible that this is a somewhat idealized childhood memory of the author's.

    I've been writing a lot about the idea that the state of mind of people in traditional societies somewhat resembles what we call a “brainwashed” mind state — and indeed, that this is a much more natural way of being than the individualistic and alienated way of thinking forced on us by our own society…

  3. The other Olga

    This is another fun series of concepts to play with. Like the anonymous responder, I am also uneasy with that passage from "West of Kabul." I first heard that people of my country (Russia? Soviet Union?) are supposed to be more "communal" from the US business professors who told me that, in the US, individualism was the norm. I was surprised and argued with them: every one of my classes in business school involved a group project of one form or another. I found it deeply offensive to have to depend on the (inferior) work of others — and even more disturbing the fact that, at the same time, I was being pegged as coming from a "communal" (I think a misunderstanding of "communist") culture.
    But then I also think about how I am the only one of my group of friends who came out to the US — many had the opportunity, but only I followed through. Many people simply could not envision moving away from their families, from their extensive social networks. Does this mean that my friends back in St.Petersburg never need their "alone" time to read and write poetry, to work in the garden, to simply be quiet with oneself? No, it doesn't. But there's a difference of being alone among strangers and being alone among friends and family.

  4. Perhaps we may postulate that the ideal culture wherein to be a child is not the ideal culture wherein to be an adolescent…

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