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I haven’t heard the term  “existential crisis” used lately. I don’t think that is because they don’t occur any more. I suspect they occur more today than they did in earlier times.

An existential crisis is defined as a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life.

Despite having no proof to point to, I believe this questioning is as old as mankind.

Existentialism was a term that come into being in the late 19th- and 20th-century via a group of diverse European philosophers. It may seem odd that this “crisis” is attached to philosophical thinking whose predominant value is commonly acknowledged to be freedom.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it “authentically.”

I came to know the term in my teen years through literature. Reading books by Jean-Paul Sartre (such as Nausea) and works by Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Herman Hesse, and then reading about them, existentialism kept being referenced.

I started to see it in many things I was reading. That “crazy cliff” that Holden Caulfield wanted to save people from falling off by being a “catcher in the rye” seemed existential to me. I started to see my own life that way. I can’t imagine getting through your teen years without an existential crisis.

Existentialism came into popular use after World War II in philosophy but also in theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

I’m sure that when I learned about an existential crisis I thought I was going through one. Mental health hypochondria is pretty common.

An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life. Does life have any meaning, purpose, or value? It is commonly wrapped up in anxiety and depression.

I have a vivid memory of seeing the film The Graduate for the first time and then again in college and when Ben was floating in his parents’ pool and feeling of a lack of purpose in life, I was floating right there with him.

But a true existential crisis is big. Questioning Life means questioning relationships, decisions, and your motivations. It is an illness. A serious one.

Currently I hear the term being used on more temporary states of mind. I did some searching online and found it in an article about spending too much time on social media. It was referenced in an article about suddenly not wanting to spend time with people and wanting to be alone. I found in searching this blog that I have used “existential” in several posts.

If an existential crisis is really a moment that an individual questions the meaning of life, it doesn’t seem like ending a relationship qualifies. Or does it?

An article that I read but won’t link to suggested that some warning signs of the crisis include drinking lots of coffee and using alcohol and cigarettes as a crutch and solution instead of coffee.

Very few of us have not felt a lack of motivation, unable to be productive to the point of depression. Mental fatigue can transform into physical fatigue, which drags you down further.

Is that an existential crisis?

Or is when it when you start to think about death, talk about death and live in the shadow of death?

When I went through a bad depression (which I and my therapist never called an existential crisis) one of the signs was that I began to cry easily for not very “valid” reasons. Movies, abandoned dogs on the drive to work, leaves falling from trees, a sad-looking woman drinking coffee at a nearby table, seeing homeless people or just sitting in the car at a red light would start me off.

Obviously, someone in a real crisis needs professional help and the support of those around them. I found that one treatment known as existential-humanistic focuses on your personalized concerns for your future. It is an approach that asks about the meaning of life.

I have probably written more about solitude than loneliness and I now view solitude – that choice to be alone – as a gift.

We all have our “dark nights of the soul” but when the night carries in the daylight and for more days and nights, I think it is a crisis.

I titled this piece “Just Another Existential Crisis” not because I trivialize the term, but ironically because I think we too often toss off depressions of other people and ourselves too lightly.

When I taught Romeo and Juliet to middle school students I became very sensitive to teen suicide. Of course, I didn’t want the play to be seen as saying that suicide was a solution, but in my research I found that it is very dangerous to not take seriously teen crises. As an adult, it is easy to dismiss the end of a seventh grader’s romantic relationship that lasted only two weeks as not being anything serious. That is a mistake. It is the same mistake that the Capulets and Montagues made. Call it existential or not, a crisis is real.

Holden Caulfield may have remembered the Robert Burns poem incorrectly, but his wish to save others in the midst of his own crisis was correct.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
– from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

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Solitude is not loneliness. Though both might be defined as that internal feeling that comes from a lack of companionship, solitude is usually a choice and may have positive benefits, while loneliness is viewed as negative and usually not a choice.

I wrote yesterday about a kind of solitude beside a pond that appears in writing as both negative and positive. Solitude can be fertile and a way to boost our creative capacity. Loneliness is empty and destructive.

Thoreau, a transcendentalist beside Walden Pond, might have viewed loneliness as a kind of depression, melancholy, or a restlessness of the soul.

Olivia Laing explores in her book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, the loneliness of being in a populated place like a  city – or being alone in a crowd.

river

Laing also wrote a book that talks about that beside-the-water solitude: To the River, In that more Walden-ish book, she walked from source to sea along the Ouse River where 60 years before Virginia Woolf had drowned herself. But that’s just one small bit of that Sussex river’s history.

And in another of her books (which I have not read yet), The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, I suspect solitude and loneliness both have a place.

But her discussion of this city loneliness and some of her word images, such as someone standing by a window alone at night high above the city street and people, made me think of many paintings by Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper’s now overexposed and often parodied Nighthawks is a painting I thought of before Laing even brought it into her discussion, where she says:

There is no colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they create, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs.

That diner is a sealed chamber,”an urban aquarium, a glass cell.” Laing makes the psychological physical.

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.

Laing feels that true loneliness,is “an especially American trait (or privilege, or curse, depending on who you are)”, and one that may be best described not by words but through art. That’s an idea also found in “Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer” by Hanya Yanagihara.

“At the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.”
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

And that river talk makes me think of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” his novella (made into a movie too – but read the novella). I find some hopeful comfort in this retired English professor who at 70 was still “haunted by waters” and wrote this small classic.

The novella is usually collected with a few other stories and together they cover his beloved fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, a brother and a father. It has sold more than a million copies, so it connects with something in many people.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”  – Norman Maclean

When I think of a pond, I imagine a small lake. However, when I visit my friend’s cabin on a “pond” in Maine I see a large lake. Relativity in water sources.

I came across a book recently titled Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett which was published last year by a small press in Ireland.  Not a book organized around a narrative, it contains twenty stories most of which are also not narrative.  An odd psychological collection where we enter the narrator’s world of fragmented segments, questions and moods.

One reviewer said it was “a work of fiction that will make you feel pleasantly insane.”  That name-dropping review by Jia Tolentino sets the bar high by saying that the collection “…recalls works by Knut Hamsun and Samuel Beckett, in which characters are more obviously forced into states of isolation… the cottage hymns of Katharine Tynan, the pure formal eccentricity of Emily Dickinson, and the dread-laced, detonating uncertainty of W. B. Yeats” – and that the book is a “photonegative of Walden.”

walden

Walden Pond

Though that collection is not about ponds, it did make me think of Henry David Thoreau who will be best remembered for two years he spent beside a pond. Is Bennett’s narrator like the self-reliant Thoreau. No, though solitude plays a part in both stories, H.D. looks to find  place in the natural world and the narrator of Pond seems to be disconnecting from the world.

Henry David Thoreau lived on the shore of a pond for two years starting in the summer of 1845 and eventually wrote about it in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. In that small piece of woods that he made famous (land owned by his friend and mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson) Thoreau unintentionally sparked a respect for nature and more than a few people on an environmental path.

His pond was Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts which is a kettle hole formed by retreating glaciers 10,000–12,000 years ago. As I have written earlier about Thoreau and Walden Pond, many people often imagine his life there as one of a hermit, he was actually quite social with regular visitors. I was very surprised and amused to learn long after I first read the book that he made frequent visits into town and to his nearby family home to get some of his mom’s cookies.

But he did isolate himself from society with the intention to write about it with greater objectivity. His experiment in simple living and self-sufficiency wasn’t one of survival and wilderness, though compared to the majority of us living today it seems to be a very radical undertaking.

I read a post this past week by Parker J. Palmer called “Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods” and I was jealous of his week away. This past week has been tough and escaping to a cabin in the woods on a silent, solitary retreat sounds very good.

He took a few daily notes each day. Nothing formal. And posted them on the On Being blog. Here are a few of his notes  with my own.

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

I like this idea of a 10 o’clock “Quaker midnight.” In the woods, camping in a tent or a cabin without electricity, the night is shorter. The daylight goes and you light your little world with a fire, a candle, a flashlight, but you tend to go to bed earlier. That’s a good thing.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

I had heard this story before. In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton did his own versions of the sayings of the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu. He is one of the Taoist sages that transformed Indian Buddhism into a Buddhism in China which evolved into what we know by its Japanese name of Zen.

“If a man crosses a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be bad tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because someone is in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry. If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you. No one will seek to harm you”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe. “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from Palmer’s book (one of many!), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

This week I have been trying to empty my boat, but the river is crowded and people want to climb in and I don’t feel like I can leave them out there in that icy water. And people are watching me from the shore. And other boats are drifting downstream towards me as I row upstream. I don’t know if anyone is in them. I don’t shout at them, but it is frightening.

I just want to stop fighting the current and drift downstream to a place of peace and serenity.

Impressionistic field

Do you like to be alone? Being alone can mean feeling lonely, but it can also mean solitude and that is something many people enjoy, seek and often can’t find.

Maria Popova writes:

“The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.”

Solitude often conjures up a vision of a mountain retreat or perhaps a wide, empty island beach, but it can be found in almost any place.  It can be found in an empty room that is quiet and somewhat isolated.

I like the word “reverie” which means a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts. Daydreaming works best when you’re alone.

For myself, I prefer to be alone out in nature which seems to deepen consciousness of yourself. I’ve written enough here about being attuned to nature. You can read your Thoreau or Abbey if you need more information about developing a deeper relationship with the transcendent, the numinous, the divine and the spiritual. Also, I associate being out in nature with increased creativity and an increased sense of freedom.

But I know that all of us don’t have access to wilderness or even suburban woods or a nearby beach. You may need to find that solitude in a city park. In the book How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland, she addresses the idea that our current society does not really approve of solitude. Wanting to be alone can be viewed as antisocial. Being alone in the woods or on a big city street at night might be considered somewhat sinister.She claims that many people actually have a fear of solitude.

She wonders how we reconcile those attitudes with the competing ideas of autonomy, personal freedom, and individualism which also seem to be highly regarded these days. The book looks at the changing attitudes we have had throughout history about being alone.

While we are on the “M” bookshelf, look at two of her other books and you’ll see where her ideas come from. She has written A Book of Silence which, as with being alone, is a cultural history. She examines silence in fairy tale and myth, and in Western and Eastern religious traditions, She writes about its use in psychoanalysis and in the creative arts.

At the end of her story, she builds a hermitage on an isolated moor in Galloway.

dunes, fog, ocean
Maitland’s other book is From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of our Fairytales which seems to be the starting place for ideas in both of the other books.

These books and others make suggestions for exercises and strategies for developing a relationship with solitude. First, you might need to consider if you have a negative view of solitude and need to develop a positive sense of aloneness.

Finally, here’s an interesting example.  Pico Iyer is a lifelong traveler and travel writer. Why would someone who has sojourned from Easter Island to Ethiopia, Cuba to Kathmandu, write a book titled The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere? It is a book that contends that sitting quietly in a room might also be an adventure, Connecting it with Maitland’s books, I view it as one written in a noisy, crowded, accelerating world which cries out for slowing down to the point of stillness.

He does this not with a how to or a why approach but with the stories of people who have made a life seeking stillness. I wouldn’t have you read it because you will be able to give up your job and become a Tibetan monk (like the scientist Matthieu Ricard) or even just take a few years off to study to be a Zen monk (singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen). You may be more inspired by people like Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi or Emily Dickinson who did find a way to build stillness into their lives. You can hear Iyer talk about stillness in a TED talk that was the starting place for his book.

You can read these book is a quiet, empty space – or just sit still in silence in your place of solitude and slip into a reverie about all this. The more ways we have to connect, the more we need to disconnect.

 

losing the light 2

Solitude might be defined as a state of seclusion or isolation. No matter where you find solitude, it always means a lack of contact with people.

I know it can be associated with bad situations – relationship issues, loss of loved ones, disease.  But in the short-term, solitude can be seen as a good and valuable thing. It can be a  time when you can work or think or rest without being disturbed. It can be privacy in a world where privacy is eroding.

Most people who give this topic any serious thought see a distinction between solitude and loneliness. For me, solitude is a good thing, while loneliness is the pain of being alone.

I heard a piece on the radio about three novels about solitude and writers and that got me thinking about the subject. As I sit here at my desk typing this, I am alone in a room. My wife is upstairs in her workspace. I don’t feel alone and I certainly don’t feel lonely. But I do want some solitude to write.

Writers tend to cherish their inner space. These are generalities (not stereotypes) but I find most writers to be outgoing and nice to be with in social situations. The solitude they crave comes at other times, and when they need it, don’t impose on that space.

We like voluntary isolation.

In those novels (I am reading one of them now), you have writers writing about writers who are dealing with solitude in some way. In The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am,  the writer has “lived so quietly that the most she thinks of human connection is that ‘someone might notice me on the way to the store’.” It is in the reading of some obituaries where she finds the stories of some people younger than she is, that she decides to get back into the world  and contact with people again. This is a Norwegian novel and in my mind people in places like Norway deal more with solitude.

Amy, the writer protagonist of Amy Falls Down, seems to have accidentally fallen into staying away from people. An accident brings her back into the public eye and she begins again some social interactions. The book’s curious description says that “While she still has writer’s block, she doesn’t suffer from it. She’s still a hermit, but she has allowed some of her class members into her life. She is no longer numb, angry, and sardonic: she is merely numb and bemused, which is as close to happy as she plans to get. Amy is calm.”


It is not so accidental for Celia, the protagonist of The Affairs of Others, who retreated from the world after her husband’s death. Her isolation feels to me more of a loneliness, even if self-imposed. She owns a small apartment building and chooses tenants for their ability to respect one another’s privacy. Here is someone who likes boundaries, solitude and being at a remove from a new tenant named (ironically or hopefully) Hope. Things get noisy. I haven’t finished the book, so no spoilers, but I hope for solitude and pleasure to triumph.

These writers have space that is sometimes public and sometimes private, which may not seem to be the case for many of us. But we do have public lives at work or school, even if there is no “fame” associated with it. We know that we can’t quite live without one another.

We don’t really want to be the castaway on the desert island, even if that sounds rather appealing at times. We would want to be rescued or even have the boat that can get us back to the mainland when we need that.

In my college days, I read a lot about solitude in religious contexts. The saints and the monks wanted  silence and found a kind of pleasure in it. Buddha attained enlightenment through meditation and deprived himself of sensory input, bodily necessities, and external desires, including social interaction.

It seemed to me that solitude was pretty much required to find yourself or your place in this world or the next one.

That pleasure from solitude seemed to be from within. This led me to many weekends of self-imposed solitude spent smoking, drinking and writing. This Romantic (but only in the English class sense) attitude eventually started to feel lonely. The idea that I needed the solitude to recharge my energy or creativity stopped working for me.

solitude

‘Solitude’ by Frederic Leighton

I know now that this path affects your physical and mental health, both positively and negatively.

Symptoms from complete isolation, called sensory deprivation, often include anxiety, sensory illusions, or even distortions of time and perception.

Now, that is an extreme case from no sensory stimulation at all and wouldn’t occur to those levels by just avoiding contact with people. However, any long-term solitude is often seen as undesirable. The solitude becomes loneliness. It gets harder to have relationships.

I found that depression led me to isolate myself, and isolating myself led to depression. A very nasty kind of Catch 22.

That doesn’t mean that solitude is depressing.  But it is a place right next door to depression and loneliness.

We know that sensory deprivation and solitary confinement are used with prisoners and are a way to torture and break them. So why would anyone impose it, even for a short time, on themselves?

But we do. And it can be a good thing.

I have concluded in my own personal study that the important factor is time. Sometimes I need a few hours. It can be in the late night and early morning hours when the house is quiet and my wife and the world are asleep and I turn off the TV and Internet. It can be an afternoon spent walking in the woods alone and avoiding the occasional other walker.

My wife has been away for a few days and I find the empty house a very good place. Of course, I know she intends to come back. I know my solitude has an expiration date and so I place great value in the solitude. In those times, I find that even when I go out to the park or a store or even some place for a drink or food, I tend to isolate myself.

You can feel lonely in a crowd. Not a good thing. You can also find solitude in a place full of people, but it takes some effort.

In solitude I find freedom. I find spirituality. I rediscover my creativity. I do feel a recharging of energies.

My solitude is voluntary.  When that isolation is involuntary or undesired at that time, I don’t see it as solitude. This is not just the semantics of the word.

I don’t think that this involuntary isolation will lead to any feeling of freedom or creativity.  While solitude can help in the development of “self,” when it lasts too long or is not by choice, I think it can hurt the self and our own self-concept.

If I know someone who seems to be depressed, my first advice and intervention is to try to get them into the world, even though that feels like the worst possible thing to them in that moment.

Now that I am much older, I am thinking about solitude and age. I don’t think children who experience solitude a lot are really experiencing what I want solitude to mean. Those children are probably not choosing to be alone. Kids need some solitude, but think about how we use “alone time” or isolation (Go to your room!) as punishment – like those prisoners. In children too much alone time probably leads to someone unsure of how to interact socially with others. And that may cause them to prefer to be alone, which leads to a shyness that leads to social rejection. A nasty circular path to walk.

As a teenager, I craved social interaction and friends, and I craved solitude. I isolated myself in my room when relatives came. I buried myself in books. I went out and found places to be alone. I made myself lonely in some distorted attempt to find something else.

It took me a lot of years to find the right balance. Now, I am much better at finding solitude and knowing how much I need before I fall off a cliff into depression.

I find a clear and empty horizon to be a very beautiful place. That is especially true when I know that I can turn around and see the people I love and know that I can get back to them. That is a place that I wish for you too, reader.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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