Solitude

Even though I’m a sociable person, with good friends and a close family, I need solitude.  When life crowds in on me, when I feel jostled or fragmented, being alone helps restore my equanimity and my sense of wholeness.  Solitude is like rebooting a computer.  You turn it off, then on, and, magically, it’s fully aligned. Even the virus is gone. But it’s more than that.  Following times of quiet, new thoughts, solutions to problems, even inspirations appear out of nowhere and of their own accord.

I may crave solitude more than most, having grown up a very sensitive boy, easily hurt and prone to feeling left out.  But I’m hardly alone.  Almost everyone I know tells me that, underneath it all, they are shy and keep at least partly hidden.  They can identify.

It is often hard to distinguish between loneliness and solitude.  More often than not, I  would choose to be with good friends.  Solitude used to feel more like compensation than a prize.  Even so, I have known from early on that I needed to conquer my fear of loneliness.  If I could be happy alone and only join others when I wanted to, I would feel so much stronger, and others would want my company.

Loneliness speaks to absence, a feeling of missing something.  Solitude speaks to plenitude, a contentment in your own company.  I discovered this secret as a child.  I’d lay down in the shower, feel the water on what I would later know was my diaphragm, and enter what I might now call a kind of meditative state.  I did this when I was worried and invariably emerged with ways to cope with those worries.  I know now that the relaxation and isolation had given me access to the mental resources that anxiety had frozen.

But I didn’t yet understand the meaning of this discovery.  Most of the time, I tried to flee from loneliness.  It never worked.  The more I fled, the more it held me in its grip.  By the time I was a young man, I knew that, paradoxically, I needed to win my battle with loneliness by embracing solitude.

I began to take long, solitary hikes and to build a cabin deep in the woods in New Hampshire, where solitude was easy to find.  But my first great victory came from another, unexpected, source.  In 1970, I found myself spending every hour of the day taking care of my infant daughter and seeing patients in psychotherapy.  I felt exhausted and besieged, and increasingly irritated with people’s demand on my attention.  I needed a refuge, a place of minimal stimulation, and I found one in journal writing.

I vowed that I would wake at least an hour before Jessie did in order to share my innermost thoughts with a blank sheet of paper.  Even if it was babble, I would write just to be alone.  Soon the writing became a ritual, guarded by my comfortable chair, notebook, and pen.  At first, I was tempted to stop every few minutes but I pushed on until the words just flowed.  I felt held and protected by the bounded hour, and very calm.  Soon I needed that hour of solitude the way that some people need drugs.   My journal became a holy place.

This was a transformative moment for me.  Choosing to be alone, loving being alone.  The isolation had become restorative.  It prepared me for the day better than any pep talk or plan ever could.

The second transformation was more intentional and hard won. I now knew the power of solitude and decided to probe its secret passages.  And I knew that I would never wear its colors fully until I enjoyed my own company.  So I undertook a journey that has taken years and remains an ongoing quest.

Like everyone else, I had reservations about myself.  I fell into self-criticism with remarkable ease.  What’s more, I related to myself the way a parent does to a child. “For god’s sake, Barry, sit up, speak clearly, be kinder, grow up.”  I’m pretty sure you recognize this chiding voice within you.

I chose two strategies for this major combat.  First, I took a series of week-long solo retreats.  I allowed myself no telephones, no TV, no books.  Just me and my journal, me and myself.  I wanted to face the immense threat of boredom and self criticism head on.  At times it was excruciating. I badly wanted to call up a friend or at least lose myself in a book.  And progress was halting.  But I was dogged; with time, I began to relax and to notice the smell the pine and the sway of the birch trees, and the sound of the stream that ran by my New Hampshire cabin.  My mind began to slow down.  The pleasure of not having to respond to anyone or to make anything happen came to the fore.  I could just sit quietly. I began, at last, to relax deeply.  True solitude is always married to relaxation, even when you are physically active.

I would find this moment, then lose it, find it and lose it many times over.  Not every moment of solitude was so sweet, but each moment became acceptable, and the range between acceptable and sweetness held firm though the next decades of my life.

The second strategy was more active.  I wrote letters to myself and descriptions of myself.  I wrote them over and over again until it sounded like I was writing about a friend, someone whose company I enjoyed, whose character I respected.  It takes a good deal of discipline.  I didn’t lie and I didn’t deny.  I had to overcome boredom and a sense that this was a precious or futile thing to do. I simply learned to focus on the parts of myself that I liked and respected.  In the process, I made friends with myself and became a very acceptable partner in my solitude.

My strategies didn’t make me a hermit or a mystical savant.  I love the company of family and friends, and I love it more because I don’t seek it compulsively and for fear of being alone.  I do believe that my love of solitude has made me a stronger person.

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On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.