Solitude

The quality or state of being alone or remote from society. 

The fam is on vacation visiting friends in Sweden.  I opted for solitude.  I’m somewhat enigmatic in that I enjoy interacting with my students, my family, and my friends, but simultaneously have a deep-seated, profound need to spend time alone.

My need for solitude has been tough at times for L to accept.  I appreciate that twenty years in, she’s getting it.  “Do you want to go to Sweden with us?  It would be more fun with you.”  “I don’t think so.”  “Okay.”  

So I alternate between being social and a loner, which may not be as paradoxical as it first appears.  I think of those tendencies as competing drives like the ebb and flow of the tides.  Without ebbing, or withdrawing from social environments, I wouldn’t have any sense of self or any insights into much of anything, and without any sense of self or insight, I don’t think I’d have much to contribute to social settings once re-engaged.  Being alone enables me to recharge my “human-interaction” battery.  Social interaction takes energy that can be invigorating, but sometimes for me, there’s a net loss of energy.

I opted for solitude because the last seven weeks have been intensely social.  The fam and I have gone from living four semi-disparate lives in a large home to living closely overlapping lives in an apartment.  And the next two months promise even more intense family time.  So this is a five day-long intermission from which all of us will benefit.

I know what I’m about to admit will cost me, but c’est la vie.  I like watching Booknotes on CSPAN.  In particular, I like listening to authors talk about their writing process.  A few years ago I was watching a Booknote interview with a writer who also taught writing at some university.  The interviewer asked the author, “What’s the single most important lesson you try to convey to your students?”  His answer was unexpected, but brilliant.  “Writing and solitude are inseparable.  Being a writer is a solitary existence.”  He went on to share his opinion that most of his students weren’t nearly comfortable enough with solitude to excel as writers.

Most writing instructors focus on the technical aspects of the process.  Solid fundamentals are important, but this author conceived of writing as a craft that is impossible to hone independent of self-understanding and insight.  Once again, this makes me think about personal technology.  I suspect people are growing less and less comfortable with solitude.  This may be particularly true of the youngest and most wired among us.  For example, like all 12 year olds probably, my youngest daughter bounces from friend to activity to friend to activity and back again.  Often, when no friends are available and there’s no activity to participate in, she goes into “What now?” mode.  

If my hunch is accurate that many young people are relatively uncomfortable with solitude, I wonder if it’s a result of adult-initiated over-scheduling.  If young people go from school, to sport1, to music, to sport2, to youth group or community service, and back again, when do they get comfortable spending quiet time by themselves?  And if they’re uncomfortable spending quiet time by themselves, how do they become introspective?  And if they don’t become introspective, how do they develop a distinct sense of self?  And without developing a distinct sense of self, how do they avoid mindlessly following the lead of their peers and the popular culture?

And guarding against over-scheduling is only part of the challenge.   Remember how idealistically I described my vision for our “Northern Retreat” in an earlier entry, in essence, the four of us spending inordinate amounts of time connecting on a deeper level.  In part, that’s been true, but note to self: wireless internet has radically changed things in the last five years.  Picture this.  On one laptop, one half of the family is in one room watching “America’s Next Top Model” on-line.  On another laptop, another member is watching an NCAA college basketball tournament game.  The third laptop doesn’t have a wireless card so the fourth family member is, gasp, reading a book. 

Simply put, there are differing degrees of solitude, some forms more enriching than others.  Meaningful solitude involves more than being alone.  Are you as alone if you’re by yourself listening to your iPod, watching “America’s Next Top Model” on-line, instant messaging, or all three at the same time?  Sometimes, when the stars align and I get an hour or two at home by myself, I don’t take full advantage because I watch a sports event for awhile and squander the remaining time on-line. 

However, a break of this length means I can take advantage of dinner and cross-country skiing invitations, watch some bball on-line, trim my email inbox, and still have plenty of time left over for being quiet, reflecting on things, writing, resting, and recharging.

And with each passing day, I’m looking more forward to my family’s return.

1 thought on “Solitude

  1. Martin Luther said that he was so busy that he needed to pray 4 hours a day in order to make it through the day! I remember taking high school kids on bike trips in the 80’s and one girl gave me the feedback that it was the first time she had time to really think in her life. I know our kids enjoy the solitude of camping in National Parks and along the Oregon Coast. Once kids are taught solitude, they slowly begin to relish it.

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