The Beauty of Solitude
(or You’re Bad. Go Away.)
I love walking alone in storms. The feel and sound of the water beating down, the thunder, the solitude, untangles everything within me like an ocean wave. It quiets outside voices and frees me to find my thoughts.
Connection & Silence
But connection is currency in today’s world. We crave it as social creatures. We measure it by likes and followers on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter.
We explore the real and damaging effects enforced isolation has had during Covid-19 lockdowns and quarantines…
Societally, we extol the virtues of group learning and the open floor plan in office settings. We typically prefer those with friendly, outgoing personalities. We fill our days with activities and our down time with media, ensuring we’re never left alone with our own silence.
Solitude isn’t the enemy of connection, but it’s often treated that way.
You’re Bad. Go Away.
If connection and community are the goals, does that make solitude the opposite?
Not necessarily, but when it’s treated that way, it plays into how we see aloneness. I struggle to come up with an instance in which society forced isolation on someone, and that person reacted with enthusiasm.
When I homeschooled, the standard question-mantra was, “What about socialization?” Now with covid, if kids can even go to school, isolation is enforced.
The Amish practice shunning. Exclusion from interactive community life is considered the gravest punishment for breaking church rules. Someone who’s shunned can still go to a wedding — they just have to sit apart and eat by themselves, like medieval lepers.
In communities with a kind of caste system, like India in the recent past or the United States a couple of generations back, supposed inferiors were excluded from ordinary public life. They might be forced to use different facilities — say, a different well in a village or a different water fountain in the U.S. I can just remember seeing separate water fountains for Black and White when I was a little kid, though they were illegal at that time. Like it was dangerous for Others to even touch the same fountain as Us.
Sometimes in person, but especially online, we ghost people or cancel them (with or without justification). They aren’t socially embraced or mentored. There is no social responsibility to the outcast. They simply cease to exist to us. Their voices echo lonely in their own minds with no response or, in severe cases, they lose their jobs and their ability to make a living.
At the extreme end, humanitarians campaign against solitary confinement for prisoners, comparing it to torture. And depending on how it’s practiced and to whom it’s done, it might be. Albert Woodfox spent nearly 44 years alone in a 6’ X 9’ concrete cell.
In these instances, solitude — isolation — is forced. Social rejection is the basis.
Time Out: What’s the Point?
On the mild side, misbehaving children are often put in a “time out.” And whether people are fans or opponents of that practice seems to have a lot to do with how they view the practice of being alone.
- Is a time out the shorter, non-penal-system form of solitary confinement? (i.e., Is it all about punishment and exclusion from social life?)
- Is “time out” about finding space to reflect? To remove someone from the emotion of a situation just enough to find where it went wrong and start over? (i.e., Is it a place to find yourself?)
In essence, how the solitude is perceived depends in part on whether it’s seen as a social rejection — which no one likes — or as an opportunity to pay attention to your own thoughts.
The Value of Paying Attention
In his TED talk, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt discusses the role of attention in creativity. That is, seeking attention interferes with creativity, while paying attention helps it blossom.
Social media, meanwhile, is specifically designed to foster a craving for more attention — attention seeking. To cause each of us, no matter how many hundreds or thousands or millions of likes or followers we have, to constantly compare ourselves to those who have more. To find ourselves lacking.
And in that constant comparison, we’re perpetually hooked and shamed. Because we will never be enough compared to that other person.
Gordon-Levitt’s talk doesn’t deal directly with the topic of solitude. What it does do is highlight what happens when that natural desire for connection becomes an unhealthy addiction.
Attention seeking actually can interfere with both healthy connection and thriving creative expression. Because we cease to focus on what we’re creating and spend all that time, instead, on trying to get people to notice us (and noticing whether they do). Sometimes we change what we do to get more attention.
Paying attention — focusing on the art (or whatever) — has the opposite effect. It breathes life into creation.
The Beauty of Solitude
Edgar Allan Poe is one artist (of many) who viewed solitude as crucial to creation. It’s likely his ability to find beauty within tragedy is not only a big part of what made him great, but also that difference he managed to find only by enjoying his own company.
Crowds engender conformity. It’s in solitude that we find within ourselves that separate thought, that something unique, and pay attention to it — a lonely, beautiful thing we birth from the well of solitude.
As he wrote in his poem “Alone”…
“From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov’d — I lov’d alone…”
Many writers, artists, and other creatives depend on that solitary space to find their vision and manifest it for the eyes of the world.
Sir Isaac Newton used to get up from dinners with company to work through the inspiration he’d been struck with. The solitary creativity of science.
Likewise, an ancient Indian ideal was to have warrior kings advised by more meditative priests — a balance of action and considered wisdom fed in part by periods of prayer and solitude. Each part is necessary for a balanced whole.
We forget this balance to our detriment.
Look around. The world is clamoring, fighting, shouting to be heard. Seeking attention.
Extroversion is not superior to introversion (and vice versa). But introverts more easily give themselves to the discipline and release of solitude. This is something to encourage, not correct.
Community benefits from the space some take to create and consider, or even for each of us to take some time to know our minds in a silent space apart from the clamor of the world. Not to be excluded, but to choose those solitary moments unfilled with other voices.
We each have something to offer from that solitary place. Something uniquely beautiful.
(Thank you for reading!)