Monday, November 23, 2015

On Solitude

     A little philosophy today:

     I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. [Henry David Thoreau]

     It seems a rule among men, and of all things sought now and then by men, that the more of something one has, the less he values it. This is as true of the opposed conditions of society and solitude as of any other.

     Today, when the great majority of us are seldom alone – indeed, when many of us find that we cannot contrive to be alone no matter how hard we might try – moments of solitude are simultaneously dreaded and sought with an ardor no other desire could approach.

     When I was a boy in upstate New York, I loved my time alone in the forests. I would walk through them for hours, savoring the silence and thinking my own thoughts. Since I retired, I’ve been alone most of the time: twelve to fourteen of my sixteen hours of daily consciousness. I’ve returned to it more joyfully than I could ever have imagined when I was still employed. It sometimes makes me wonder how I survived the enforced society of ten hours each day spent among hundreds of colleagues for so many years.


     There are two aspects to solitude that are underappreciated by those who continuously immerse themselves in society:

  • Freedom;
  • Peace.

     Theoretically, it’s law that supposedly restricts your freedom. In practical, day-to-day terms, it’s what other people do or might do: how their actions and reactions, actual and possible, will constrain you. When you’re alone, those constraints are as far away as you can put yourself from other people.

     Alongside that, you cannot be completely at peace when in society. Society marries its benefits to all sorts of costs, including noise, bustle, and the continuous possibility of conflict. Noise alone, the inevitable byproduct of all human action, creates stresses of which we’re often unaware. While some environments are inherently noisy, being in company is always noisier than being alone.

     Granted that some human activities require that we accept the company of others – sex and Scrabble® come immediately to mind – nevertheless, solitude offers many benefits Americans of the Continuously Connected Era lack. Perhaps we should consider reacquainting ourselves with them.


     I know a number of persons who are afraid to be alone. They’ve become addicted to human interaction. They seem not to have any concept of self except in relation to others: how they’re the same, and how they’re different from those in their company. If they don’t have a buddy physically nearby, they’re on their cell phones.

     I don’t grasp it. Fear of solitude strikes me as a fear of oneself: the afflicted one’s uneasiness about what he might get up to without others to curb him. Or perhaps it’s a fear of self-discovery: that acquaintance with oneself outside of all society might reveal personality or character traits he’d rather not recognize.

     How could a man possibly be comfortable with others if he’s not first comfortable with himself? And how could he become comfortable with himself, as himself apart from others, without learning his nature in solitude?


     I can think of three generic conditions a man must master to feel himself fully realized as a mature man:

  • Solitude;
  • Casual society;
  • Emotional intimacy.

     We do need one another. As Marshall Fritz once observed, the toughest Delta Force special operator or Navy SEAL, if isolated on a tropical island without the means of escape, would be hard put to maintain his sanity or his body weight. Practicalities aside, each of us needs a degree of social acceptance and some source of love. But we need ourselves as well. One must be whole and firm before he can risk the company of others, and there is no substitute for solitude as an avenue to the crafting of a character and a personality that can withstand the abrasions, contusions, and occasional lacerations one must endure in society.

     Much of “what’s wrong” with America could be remedied by the rediscovery of solitude and its benefits: whether it’s to be alone with agreeable reading or music, or to stroll at leisure through some congenial woodland or meadow, or merely to be alone with one’s thoughts. It’s a pity that our working lives allow so little solitude. It’s even worse that whether we’re working, playing, praying, or lazing, we’re surrounded with so many inducements to shun it.

     Just some food for thought on a lazy Monday morning when I’ve had my fill of our various social pathologies.

3 comments:

  1. Solitude. Does having a cat count?

    I'm retired too and don't miss work in the least. It's noise that I now find the most irritating. Traffic, school yards, barking dogs, lawn mowers, leaf blowers. Seems endless. I do have a place in the mountains that I escape to. For days if I so choose. The cats let me know how bad I've been for leaving them.

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  2. Noise - from other humans in the form of being forced to hear their choice of music, traffic noise, barking dogs, etc. - became intolerable to me. Hence my move to the rural mountains of SW Montana, where the sound of the wind is usually all we hear. The occasional song of the Western meadowlark in the spring and the calling of elk to each other in the winter are the sounds we enjoy apart from the peace and quiet that normally reigns here.

    Now our contact with other people is a pleasant _choice_, not forced upon us by the presence of too many people around us.

    My wife and I often have different pursuits during the day, and that time alone is actually comforting. We have lived in close quarters, cruising in our sailboat and traveling the country in our RV after we came back to live on dry land, and were comfortable. The temporary separation as we each "do our own thing" here in this latest chapter of our retirement is good for us both.

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  3. I try to get to the woods alone for a long weekend twice a year. I sit, think, read, and become one with my sleeping bag.

    I took the kids on one of those once, and they said it was the most boring thing ever. I disagreed. :-)

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