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In Defense of Solitude

March 9, 2018

“Solitude” by Dino8 via

The most calm moments of my life come when I am alone. I cherish these moments of calm, still, quiet, undemanding solitude. In a country and culture obsessed with the sadness of loneliness, I want only to be alone for a few moments. To be lonely is a tragedy, but to be alone can be a joy.

For six years, I lived alone. I often traveled alone, in cities and wilderness, and generally enjoyed myself. I often worked in my studio alone, choosing odd hours when classmates were elsewhere. I never compromised on where I chose to eat or sleep, what shows I watched, what music I listened to, what furnishing I bought, how long I sat on a rock in an aspen grove listening to the stream. I never indulged in compromises or permitted unwelcome activities, foods, sounds, or decor. It was not always joy. Sometimes, I was lonely, but on balance, I was content.

Then I moved to California and had a roommate again. As roommates go, he was very low key and I still enjoyed many hours alone most days. He had buddies over late at night to drink and talk, but only on weekends. I learned to sleep with earplugs in. The decor was spare, bachelor-ish, but not unpleasant. He cleaned the house like a machine each Saturday, which benefited me unequally. I was still occasionally lonely and I longed for my own place again, but I was not discontent.

I found a partner and we moved in together about five years ago now. I would not trade our relationship, but since then I have enjoyed less and less solitude. Rarely was I home alone. Errands were often run together. I spent more and more time at work around people. When I traveled, it was for crowded conferences or family vacations, no more solo wanders. Even spiritual retreats were confounded by others.

Yet my spirit, such as it is, never feels so calm, clear, and refreshed as when I am alone. The Buddha needed to be alone for his growth. Hermitages continues to be a vital part of Buddhist tradition, though it is less practiced now for economic and cultural reasons.

Today I experience blessed solitude with something like nostalgia. Like a warm cup of my favorite tea not tasted for many years. It is something to savor and stretch. In such rare moments, I find myself unwilling to do any work or even move around too much, lest I disturb this moment of peace. With regularity, I hope this reluctance will pass and the calm remain.

Colin and I have settled into our new routine in Rochester, which allows me to spend Friday mornings home alone after he has gone off to work. This morning, I spent the time reading on the couch under a pile of blankets, the dog’s head in my lap, watching the snow fall outside our living room windows. I told myself I should get up and work a bit on my dissertation, but I didn’t want to disturb the moment.

We’ve settled into our little old house just south of Downtown. For many years we’ve lived in “open floor plan” apartments. Our last apartment had enough bedrooms that we could each have a separate office, which was delightful. This is the first house we’ve had with a separate living room, complete with a door. We both agree it is preferable. We find open floor plan homes, like open offices, to be overrated. Colin no longer has a separate office, which we agree is unfortunate. He’s taken over the dining space by the kitchen, which is less than ideal, but sufficient in size.

I love people. I love them in their particularity. They are fascinating. I often seek them out and enjoy when they seek me out. I love my family, my in-laws, my partner.

But I also love solitude and separation. Having a little now and then helps me love people more, not less. It gives me time to refresh and reflect and return to them better than I could be had I never been alone.

If you have someone who loves solitude in your life, think of it like a gift you can give them now and then. Like cookies or flowers. And remember, wanting to be alone doesn’t mean they don’t want to be around you. It means they want to be around you in the best way they can. Being alone doesn’t mean they are lonely.*

Perhaps we’re not all built this way, but I am. I can cope with much less solitude than I used to enjoy, but I still crave it and savor it. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy winter. There’s so much more cultural permission for solitude in winter. It refills me for the remainder of the year. I am at my best with others when I have had some time without them, even those that I love the most.

*(Many people in this world are lonely, especially the elderly and those struggling with depression or disability. There are many charities that provide home visitation and, if you love people, consider volunteering for one.)

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