What is it about solitude that so many of us fear? Perhaps it is because it is only in solitude that we are forced to listen to the silence. Forced to face the realities of possessing a body that so often feels separate from the natural world we inhabit. For many of us, there is a strange comfort that comes with being surrounded by others. It can sometimes serve as a distraction from looking deep into ourselves.
I know that for me, solitude has often been filled with a sense of dread or terror. And yet, I’ve often felt alone even when amid people, even people I know and love. Part of this comes from living in my head so much. Some may understand that people with a propensity for melancholy usually dwell in a space we carve out in our minds. Sometimes it can feel like a refuge. A sanctuary. Other times it feels like a prison. Solitude is not necessarily loneliness, but it can often feel like it.
Several years ago, I took a road trip on my own. I packed a bag and drove up the California coast with no real destination in mind. No itinerary. Stopping wherever and whenever I wanted to. Staying long if I wanted at places others might have become bored with. Staring off into the distance atop an oceanside cliff. Sitting cross-legged in a forest as the twilight gathered around me.
It was in the forest that I felt most at home. I observed creatures scurrying about or still. Some were communal, others were decidedly solitary. Life was teeming under the soil, in the bark of the trees, in the skies above. Everything was connected as if it were a tapestry. I imagined myself staying there forever. Letting this body decay to compost. Nourishing something far greater than myself.
In my youth, I was raised in Christianity. And I was taught about Jesus and his solitary sojourn to the desert. Even though now, I have left organized religion behind, that story still speaks to me. It revealed a need we all have to seek out that which cannot be found in the midst of others. And to face our demons, as Jesus faced Satan. In a sense, facing the darkness within us.
This solitude isn’t the same as the type of aloneness which modern society imposes on us. We have created a kind of atomized existence where we are expected to be independent. Individual fortitude and self-reliance have become virtues that are endlessly lauded. While the sages and scions of our age continually tout “wellness”, the model so many of us have internalized is “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps”. Ironically, when that phrase originated, it was intended to mock such a concept as ridiculously impossible.
Now, as we find ourselves in the maw of late capitalism, we see how that idea has worked out. Our fragile biosphere, the living web of life we all rely on, has been given a backseat to the “economy”. The irony of this is that this economic arrangement was never built to benefit all of us. And we are only now beginning to see this Faustian bargain for what it is: self-destruction.
None of this is to suggest that everything about modern life is evil or destructive. There is still art, music, literature, dance. And I am not a Luddite. I appreciate the sciences, the advances of modern medicine, the exploration of the universe and of this wondrous world we live on. And I enjoy electricity and other technological conveniences. Even social media, with its copious flaws, still has room to make real connections with real human beings. And it can galvanize people to take a stand against injustice or brutality.
But all of this is tenuous if we think and act as though we are above nature and not dependent upon it. Or if we become convinced, we do not need other people in order to thrive and feel meaning. And I fear that too many of us are attaching our mental, emotional and spiritual health to a system that, in the end, doesn’t care for us in the least except as a commodity to be traded when it is profitable.
Solitude gives us a chance to pause in this frenetic and abusive culture. If we listen closely, it forces us to realize that this is not the way things are supposed to be. If we feel alien to this world of illuminated screens and sprawling concrete, maybe it is because we are. It was not designed for us to pause. Not created for us to connect with each other. A world of endless distraction and obfuscation. So, to stand outside of it, even for a short time, can be a revolutionary act.
Kenn Orphan, April 2023
*Photo is one of my own, and is Mushamush Lake, Nova Scotia.