Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Rewards of Living a Solitary Life

The other day an acquaintance of mine, a gregarious and charming man, told me he had found himself unexpectedly alone in New York for an hour or two between appointments. He went to the Whitney and spent the "empty" time looking at things in solitary bliss. For him it proved to be a shock nearly as great as falling in love to discover that he could enjoy himself so much alone.

What had he been afraid of, I asked myself? That, suddenly alone, he would discover that he bored himself, or that there was, quite simply, no self there to meet? But having taken the plunge, he is now on the brink of adventure; he is about to be launched into his own inner space, space as immense, unexplored, and sometimes frightening as outer space to the astronaut. His every perception will come to him with a new freshness and, for a time, seem startlingly original. For anyone who can see things for himself with a naked eye becomes, for a moment or two, something of a genius. With another human being present vision becomes double vision, inevitably. We are busy wondering, what does my companion see or think of this, and what do I think of it? The original impact gets lost, or diffused.

"Music I heard with you was more than music."* Exactly. And therefore music itself can only be heard alone. Solitude is the salt of personhood. It brings out the authentic flavor of every experience.

"Alone one is never lonely: the spirit adventures, walking/In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there."

Loneliness is most acutely felt with other people, for with others, even with a lover sometimes, we suffer from our differences of taste, temperament, mood. Human intercourse often demands that we soften the edge of perception, or withdraw at the very instant of personal truth for fear of hurting, or of being inappropriately present, which is to say naked, in a social situation. Alone we can afford to be wholly whatever we are, and to feel whatever we feel absolutely. That is a great luxury!

For me the most interesting thing about a solitary life, and mine has been that for the last twenty years, is that it becomes increasingly rewarding. When I wake up and watch the sun rise over the ocean, as I do most days, and know that I have an entire day ahead, uninterrupted, in which to write a few pages, take a walk with my dog, lie down in the afternoon for a long think (why does one think better in a horizontal position?), read and listen to music, I am flooded with happiness.

I am lonely only when I am overtired, when I have worked too long without a break, when for the time being I feel empty and need filling up. And I am lonely sometimes when I come back home after a lecture trip, when I have seen a lot of people and talked a lot, and am full to the brim with experience that needs to be sorted out.

Then for a little while the house feels huge and empty, and I wonder where my self is hiding. It has to be recaptured slowly by watering the plants, perhaps, and looking again at each one as though it were a person, by feeding the two cats, by cooking a meal.

It takes a while, as I watch the surf blowing up in fountains at the end of the field, but the moment comes when the world falls away, and the self emerges again from the deep unconscious, bringing back all I have recently experienced to be explored and slowly understood, when I converse again with my hidden powers, and so grow, and so be renewed, till death do us part.

- May Sarton

* "Music . . . music" a line from Conrad Aiken's Bread and Music (1914)


Blogger Crazed Teacher said...

I do agree that everyone needs alone time now and then to sort themselves out but solitude for life???
I think you just start to defend your life style of solitude, abt how much you like it so that other people dont pity your loneliness.
people who care and who are there to listen to you, laugh with you and cry with you are necessary.
In solitude you cant heal as fast as with people who love and care for you. alone time is good, thats a given but then again u need people who would just sit with you and understand without talking, you need someone just to hold hands.
A walk on the beach alone would be good but then wouldnt it be better if you had someone to share that solitude with, to share the sun set and watch the waves crash.... do i make sense???

9:42 PM  
Anonymous anjum said...

when I read that first paragraph about the author's friend spending time by himself for the first time.. I was reminded of many of my extrovert friends, though one in particular.. she always wanted to be around other people, to be social, to not be alone. as if, like the author wonders, she were afraid of who she might meet if she were to wander within herself.

but after enough time with me (such an introvert, yet social, outgoing), she tried something - spending the entire day by herself, running errands, having lunch (by herself!), etc. It was a huge day for her. and it was a huge day for me, because I knew she was on her way to getting to be comfortable with herself.. and to realizing for herself what a beautiful person she is.

great selection to post, kk. (I knew it wasn't you, even before I got to the end.. I was thinking, "hmm.. his style has.. err, changed..") :-)

6:59 AM  
Blogger karrvakarela said...


I too couldn't help wondering whether this wasn't just some elaborate cover-up for the writer's loneliness. There is truth to what Ushi wrote. People do go out of their way to rationalise their unhappiness in order to defend themselves from its devastation. You can never overstate the importance of having people around who love you and who you can love back, people you can lavishly share your affection with. Without family, life becomes very difficult.

At the same, it is also important to learn how to be alone because that helps you to understand things for yourself and develop your own independent perspective (which to my mind is a way of saying your own independent relationship with God.) It helps you to be strong. It also teaches you to deal with pain, which is a good idea since then you don't suffer the indignity of being knocked out first round when life starts to get interesting.

I think the key is to establish a balance between the two postures, between the pleasures of society and the privileges of solitude. How you define that balance is of course up to you and the kind of person you are. But by employing a moderate approach at least you get to enjoy the best of both worlds and come out wiser for it.

Jazak Allah, Anjum. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous content in solitude said...

The people who question whether the author is putting up a happy facade behind which there is loneliness and isolation disrespect those who are simply different than they are. There are those of us who PREFER to spend most of our time alone. Those of you who think that everyone needs to be around other people cite only the positives of being around other people (eg. someone to hold you hand, someone to take a walk with, etc). You have not mentioned the negative side of being with people, like complaining/whining, self-absorption, negativism, mindless chattiness, inability to embrace silence even in the presence of the awesome beauty of nature, etc. There are many other unpleasant experiences to be had with other people. Some people are "psychic vampires" who drain the life force from those of us who PREFER to spend most of their time alone. It is not that we do not like people, or have poor interpersonal skills, we just feel better when left to our won devices and are not overly impacted by others. We are the brave ones who dare to be ourselves and not give into the expectations of society. We gladly walk our own path with the result of being truer to ourselves. We are mentally healthy and spiritually content. Don't pity us....our path is uncluttered.

10:23 AM  
Blogger neeraj said...

i do agree with the writer, one need their personal time to understand all of this confusion in the world. once you reach in within yourself and explore the unseen, in your inner self you could know the truth of live. you can explore the beauty of nature and the perfect world.
Step back, clear your mind—
Let it flow, stop trying to control. Let wonder lead. Surrender to the Eternal.
Why run against the wheel of life?
It is when you swim upstream that you hurt.
it is the differences between people that emerges a conflict and an argument. i mean what do you get when you compare yourself with others when u meet them. Reject this invented pain, this invented competition and Accept for what it is.
Heaven is here. Hell is here. It is your choice which you will perceive. The clean in heart see the purity of life. The ego-driven see only sorrow, for that is the lie they have bound themselves to.
Follow the path of the illumined, the sages, the mystics, those without personal needs. There is a kingdom waiting to be discovered in your heart.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Toni Gable said...

I think that living a solitary life is the only way some people can live successfully. Some people seem to attract only those who inflict pain on them. Like"content in solitude" said, "the psychic vampires who drain the life force of those who prefer to be alone..." There are so many ways this can be done. How do these people find quality people to spend their time with? Isn't it much better for them to be alone and like it.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Court said...

This posting and its subsequent comments have helped me immensely. I only attract people that hurt me. When I'm in public I feel uncomfortable and I always say the wrong thing. People naturally dislike me, even though I am outgoing and extremely giving. This article has helped me see that there isn't anymore shame in being alone than there is in being black, handicapped, gay, or a construction worker among executives.

Thank you.. especially the comment from Toni. I will try this experiment for 3 weeks and see what comes of it. Thank you.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am a solitary soul. Throughout childhood I felt devastation over not being one of the "popular girls", I later realized it's not the popularity I wanted -- it was the acceptance. I didn't love myself enough to know myself. That was key. Once I embraced this little eccentric blonde girl that I am the world just seems so light, free and beautiful. I smile at strangers on the street, wish the barista at Starbucks a wonderful day and enjoy the simplicity of a solo mountain drive. Books and learning stimulate me in ways people never can. Yes, it's true, a book can't hug me. But guess what? I don't like being hugged by friends anyway. A lovers embrace is something entirely different, but I feel there's no need to dive into that.

To conclude this post, I want to say I absolutely agree with the "psychic vampire" theories -- I suspect a person that prefers solitude is especially sensitive to those individuals. I know I am!

10:39 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hey, in some distant point of space and time, years removed from the original posting I discovered this page at a point of reflection in my own journey. I have always been solitary myself. I am not going to get into it, but I find aloneness to be best. Of course we are human and we get lonely at times but sometimes, for some of us, aloneness is best. I am learning that I and only I am the best judge of myself and what I know.

4:13 AM  

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