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In Praise of Solitude

When I was a sweet young thing in my twenties, a guy-crazy roommate decided that it was her God-given duty to "fix me up". She would talk to men she knew, people she thought I might like- often on the flimsiest of commonalties, wind them up about my availability and fire them in my direction. I became quite deft at fending off these poor, hapless guys- always with the utmost politeness, and always shaking my head at the persistent gall of this woman. I was in my ‘nice’ (read, ‘doormat’) stage of life, but I finally had enough and confronted her. Why was she constantly siccing these guys on me?

She was aghast that I would take offence at her attempts to, in her words, ‘end my loneliness’. Ex-squeeze me? Lonely? Me? Sure, I spent a lot of time alone, but I certainly wasn’t lonely. I didn’t need to go bar-hopping or clubbing or whatever she and my other roomie did to find company. I preferred to keep Waldenbooks and the local library in business, and my bookshelves full. For me, a good book and a good music album were more than enough companionship. I was feeding my brain, ears, and heart at the same time, and the only mess I had to pick up was my own. I didn’t need anyone underfoot. She did, though, and would nearly bounce off the walls if she didn’t have someone to be with to ‘fill in the time’. She finally found someone and married him. I was relieved to have her gone.

But I noticed that this ‘gotta have someone underfoot’ attitude wasn’t just a fluke of my erstwhile matchmaker. I have friends and relatives who feel like half a person if they do not have a companion to go to movies or out to eat with. The idea of a table for one is totally alien to them. Most of the people I knew had no clue of what to do with themselves when faced with some unstructured time and no one to spend it with. "Don’t you ever get lonely?" I’ve been asked several dozen times. "Aren’t you afraid to be by yourself?" "Isn’t it lonely living alone?"

Um, no. I’ve been more lonely in a dorm full of colleagues than I have in my own home, surrounded by my own stuff. It is not solitude I fear-it is the unwanted visitor. I’m just fine by myself. And as for fear, well, I know where all the sharp and pointy things are that aren’t in the knife-holder, and I’m not afraid to use them. Just ask the fellow who was my neighbor in Germany and got a little too…neighborly. He learned that even his 65-year-old potbellied carcass could move quickly when faced with an enraged woman with a torn shirt and a boning knife. Yes, I have, and will defend myself. If I can’t trust myself, who else can I trust?

This should be true for everyone. Solitude isn’t something to be afraid of- it is something to embrace and enjoy. It has a way of stripping you down to your basic true self, taking away all the shields and affectations you’ve built like psychic calluses to protect your tender soul. It lets you loosen the corset of your formal, other-perceived self, and don the caftan of relaxed indulgence and quiet introspection. Released from their responsibility to serve and entertain others, your thoughts begin to dwell on things outside your immediate sphere of need. They are broader, deeper, more relaxed and healing.

You are truly yourself when you are alone. Even when you are in public- you are in a unique place that permits- if you let it- enhanced observation and interesting opportunities. I am not afraid of eating alone, and do not let restaurant staff park me in a forgettable place. A raised eyebrow puts Nosy Parkers in their place if they start in on me. Being a solitary person doesn’t stop me from seeing a movie when I feel like doing so, either. I like to people-watch, and I can do that just as well on my own as I can with someone. And being alone in public sometimes permits interesting and delightful interactions with strangers. Were I with someone, I wouldn’t have a chance to engage, or be engaged in conversation with people I don’t know. These fleeting interactions reinforce my humanity, and keep me in touch with the world around me and the community I Serve. I sometimes think that people are afraid to go out alone because they might have to talk to strangers, or not be ‘protected’ from the ‘other’ by the presence of their familiar companion. I feel sorry for such people, because they are missing out on ways to grow as a person by not being brave enough to try solitude once in a while.

I have a friend who was married right out of high-school, and had three kids one after another. She was totally immersed in her role as wife and mother, and rarely had a moment to herself. Her kids, teens now, went on a two-week vacation at the same time her husband had to go on a business trip. For the first time in nearly 20 years, my friend had some time all to herself. She was frantic- she’d never been alone for all that time. I told her not to panic, to exhale. And call me if she needed me. A couple of days later, I called her to make sure she was OK. "I cannot believe how quiet it is, and how relaxed I am," she told me. "When the phone rang, I was actually afraid that it was one of my kids wanting to come home early!" She learned to listen to herself, relax and let things flow, and she got lots of stuff done that she had put off for years. She’s looking forward to giving her husband and kids the boot again this year. Solitude’s healing properties have a way of growing on you.

Some people like more solitude than others. My own life is a happy balance- I work extensively with people at my job, and enjoy interacting with them. By the time I get home, the peaceful silence is a welcoming thing for me. I might play some music or watch some movies, but with the exception of an occasional phone call or dinner date, my evenings and weekends are my own, and I like it that way.

In the ancient days, there were holy hermits and meditating monks who would live for years in caves and cells not speaking or interacting with anyone. They claimed that this brought them closer to God, but it also brought some of them to madness. Solitude does indeed allow you to listen more carefully to that ‘still, small voice’ within, but if insanity overtakes it, that voice becomes a howl of psychotic rage. Like anything in life, solitude should be balanced with healthful and uplifting interaction with other people. Even making eye contact with strangers and speaking briefly to store clerks can be healthful. If you strive to make your contact with people as positive and kind as you can- and make that part of your profession, your solitary time will be that much more uplifting, because you are doing the work of your Inner Light. You might be surprised how healing an influence even your most fleeting of contact will be- both to you, and to your fellow person. A nod, a smile, a friendly ‘hello’: all of these can convey camaraderie in this ever-more isolated world. Each sincere touch, acknowledgement and word becomes ever more precious in these rude and increasingly isolated times. Your time alone should be a time to charge your spiritual batteries- and like real ones, they become stronger if they are regularly exercised by ‘discharging’ them in positive interaction.

Live your life fully, and wholly. Enjoy your solitude with as much zest and indulgence as you enjoy your time with others. Do not brood if you are left in the lurch- curl up with a good book or a movie and give your mind something to do. Understanding that solitude is a special blessing that should be graciously accepted and utilized will help you walk the Spiral Path with peace and grace.

2001, Sunfell

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