A year ago around this time, I wrote the post ‘No Texting for Lent and The End of Solitude’. It was in response to the news about some Roman Catholic bishops urging the faithful to restrain from texting as a penance during Lent. And around the same time, I came across the article by William Deresiewicz ‘The End of Solitude’, pointing out the difficulty of remaining alone in our over-connected society.
Now a year after Deresiewicz published his essay, the number of tweets had grown by 1,400%. Now there are 50 million tweets per day, an average of 600 tweets per second. So, if you’re calling for ‘No texting’ at Lent, you might as well tell people not to use the phone, the computer, the iPhone, all the smart gadgets, in other words, get off the human race for the time being.
Hey, that may not be such a bad idea. The current issue of The American Scholar has another article by Deresiewicz, yes, on solitude again. I’m glad to read articles on ‘Solitude’, why? There just aren’t too many written on this topic. And thanks to Deresiewicz, seems like his is the only voice crying in the digital wilderness. The article is a lecture he delivered to the plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October of last year, entitled ‘Solitude And Leadership’.
If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts.
This quote at the beginning of the article just about sums it all up.
Speaking to this class of freshman, all eager and gung-ho to fall in line with the rank and file of this prestigious Military Academy, Deresiewicz has the audacity (ok, guts) to tell his audience to shun conformity, break away from regimentation, to ask questions, to seek their own reality, to form their own opinion, and to exercise moral courage. And his main crux: it is only through solitude can they do this.
Facebook and Twitter, and yes, even The New York Times, only expose you to other people’s thinking. Whenever you check your tweets, or get on to your social network, or read the newspaper for that matter, you are only hearing other people’s voices:
That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.
He urged them to read books instead. Well aren’t books other people’s opinion too? True, sometimes you need to put them down too to visualize you own reality and formulate your own stance. But, books, especially the time-tested ones, have weathered social scrutinies and oppositions, and yet still stand today offering us wisdom of perspectives in finding our own path.
Further, the major difference between a well-written book and a tweet, or a Comedy Central episode, or even a newspaper article, is basically, time.
The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day… for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.
Of course, this may sound reductionist. But, I like the idea of slowing down in this rapidly shifting world. Deresiewics urged the freshmen of West Point to practice concentrating and focusing on one thing rather than multi-tasking. He charged them to take the time to slowly read, think, and write, in solitude, an axiom that’s so rad that his audience probably had never heard before.
In this über connected world we’re in, it’s unnatural to be alone. A solitary moment has to be strived for with extra effort, and much self-discipline. That means unplugging the phone, turning off the computer and anything smart, yes, including friends, real or virtual. For Lent or not for Lent, it could well be the only way to find out who we are and where we are heading. Even if we’re not aspiring to lead, at least we know whom we should follow. And, you’ll never know, others may be attracted to our slowness and surety that they just might step right behind us. So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff.
20 thoughts on “Alone Again… Unnaturally”
It’s amazing how isolated I feel if I forget my cell phone at home…Yikes. I have to remind myself of the years I got along quite nicely without such connection at my fingertips at all times…
I know, the cell phone has almost become an essential… even a lifeline for some. But it’s also freeing, if we can be ‘unleashed’ every now and then…
You know I love this, and you know how exactly right I think it is.
Today, I live alone (albeit with a cat!) and work alone (with an occasional customer or other contractor to chat with). I have friends and enjoy people, but do very little “socializing” in the ordinary sense. I love to travel alone and my favorite time of day is night, when the world quiets and you can hear the earth breathing.
It wasn’t always this way, and I’ve learned a thing or two as I’ve made my own life transitions. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that if you allow it, external silence will seep in and quiet the heart and the mind. Not only that, solitude and loneliness have very little to do with one another. I’m often alone, but I’m rarely lonely.
For St. Patrick’s day, I wrote about the Celts saining, or taking up and blessing all the ordinary business of life. Silence and solitude can be sained, too. As you’ve made clear in this lovely entry, it’s a real blessing when they are.
I treasure the solitary moments because those are the most productive parts of my day. I totally agree with you that being alone is enjoyable and has nothing to do with loneliness. Maybe people have the misconception mixing the two that’s why they’re afraid to be alone. Also, it’s a trend too… it’s just the cool thing to do to be connected to as many people as possible, a kind of social status, like a popularity contest. In those cases, of course, the definition of ‘friendship’ is quite different from the traditional meaning.
It’s interesting to see you mention on your St. Patrick’s Day post: “We live in a world where language has been reduced – to twitter and tweets, text messages and instant messages.” How I marvel at the sychronicity we encounter in the blogosphere.
This just struck me. You said, Whenever you check your tweets… you are only hearing other people’s voices…
How interesting that many people who tweet the most are mostly “re-tweeting”. They not only hear other peoples’ voices, they speak with others’ voices, too.
Ironically, I’ve been mulling over whether I should get on to Twitter, well no, not to retweet, but more to tweet my own thoughts. It’s a useful medium to share your views, definitely a powerful tool. BTW, those words about hearing other people’s voices are Deresiewicz’s… I’m just paraphrasing his thoughts. Ha, there you go, have I fallen into the trap of repeating what others are saying?
I connected with this piece on several levels.
Solitude is the best gift I give to myself. Whether in the garden or in my morning time of prayer, or even writing here at my desk, solitude feeds my spirit.
It’s ironic that ‘connecting with the world’ often comes at a high cost of disconnecting from ourselves — from knowing who we are and who we are becoming or failing to become. Yet, when I connect with myself and my deepest longing first, when I take time to reconnect with the Reality of God, mysteriously, I am better able to connect with others too– not superficially, but at a more deeper level.
Perhaps this is why I’ve spent three years exploring the art of spiritual direction. It’s one thing to be alone in the quiet — it’s much sadder to feel alone with a friend or in a busy world that fails to take notice.
Here’s a short story that illuminates better what I mean about being alone and yet not alone — that grew out of a time of need, when I called one of my notoriously busy friends on her cell phone.
“Am I catching you at a bad time,” I asked.
“Oh, no… not at all.”
What I didn’t know was that I had called my friend while she was waiting in a fast food drive-through line. A few minutes into our conversation, just as I had begun to bare my soul, I was preempted by the sounds of a crackly intercom:
“May I take your order please?”
Severed in mid-stream were words hanging from my lips; out of a dead and awkward silence, my friend sheepishly ordered her chicken sandwich while I made my excuses and scurried away like the proverbial chicken with her head cut off.
No doubt about it, cell phones can disconnect in many ways — in my case, the cell phone became a killer of intimate conversation. It’s no small irony that my friend carries her cell in a holster!
As I wrote in a recent prayer mediation, for the contemplative prayer class that I lead, that day I called my friend on her cell, I was in search for a cell of a kinder kind, the sort of cell occupied by Julian of Norwich, who out of a life enriched by solitude, offered the world her listening ear.
Only in solitude can we listen — to ourselves and God and others — even if others are novelists, like Yann Martel, whose book “Life of Pi” I am enjoying very much.
Thank you for this … and that (other post), which invited me to pick up Martel.
Solitude probably has become a luxury in our overly connected world. And to many, it’s hard to come by even if one is willing to unplug it all. There are responsibilities and obligations, financial considerations, the physical constraints. Where can we go that one can be really alone? Like the picture on this post, which I took in Cochrane, Alberta, how many have the luxury to own a few acres of empty space where you can freely roam, physically and mentally.
It’s indeed a spiritual discipline to remove oneself from the busyness of life and strive for a solitary moment. And once you’ve got it, what do you do is the next testing thing. Some are so used to be with people that it’s pointless for them to be alone… and do what? and ponder on what? Again, it’s back to the great books which can reveal and enlighten, and for me, the Great Book, where that still, small voice speaks ever so clearly, but only when I sit quietly and listen.
I just thought of this ~ some of the best writing on the subject has been done by May Sarton, especially Journal of a Solitude and The House by the Sea.
She sought and struggled with solitude her entire life, especially its importance in the creative process. I enjoy all of her writing, but these are extraordinary.
Yes of course, May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude is one of my favorites. I haven’t read The House by the Sea. Will look that up.
Much food for thought during this time of Lent. And I agree with the principles for life in general. For myself, I’ve chosen to limit time on Twitter and FB just because there’s already so much input noise from the reading and research required in my job. I find that I need the quiet to process.
I suppose blogging too… It’s hard to withdraw from connectivity, especially when one is alone! It’s ironic I know, one could be totally alone but fully connected as well.
And the reverse is true, as well ~ it is possible to be fully engaged in life, fully “plugged in” and yet maintain a certain interior space.
Isolation is not necessarily solitude, and connectivity is not necessarily chaos….
Well said indeed, Linda.
I love this post!!! It is so real, so essential, so important. I thought about giving up blogging for Lent, and somehow, couldn’t do it. But, I should for the discipline and the experience of slowing down. Thinking real thoughts of my own. This is very, very powerful, Aarti, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. Thank you for being so real in an all too often artifical/superficial world.
Not to pop in before Arti, but I just have to add that it’s blogging itself which slows me down, clarifies my thoughts and helps me to sort out what is real – for me – and what’s just chatter swirling around from outside.
The “thinking” that takes place before and in conjunction with the “writing” is perhaps at the heart of the slow blogging movement that Arti’s written about so eloquently.
Thanks for both of your comments. No, I don’t mind you coming in before me Linda… actually I welcome your sharing, for that reminds me of my own journey of ‘reinventing’ myself.
Blogging has greatly helped me to be in tune with my own thoughts. Actually maybe not blogging per se, but the writing part. Like before blogging, we were all into journalling, weren’t we? (I suppose we all did at a certain time) And then there was visual journalling, and then there was … blogging. Voila, technology has facilitated the medium to allow for internal exploration of the self, and the possibility of expressing one’s own thoughts, AND allowing the instantaneous responses from others. Yes, we have technology to thank for such accessibility. But then again, it could be addictive too, and we do need time for aloneness.
I admit it’s hard for me personally to strive for a quiet time, because of the attractions the blogosphere offers. So even when I’m alone, I’m busily connecting. So the solitude is not so much physical, but cyber… you two are spot on, it’s the slowing down and the quietness that we should strive for.
I’m a naturally solitary person and have always needed lots of alone time to deal with life, but that alone time has certainly been chipped away by the internet and now my iPhone (I can blame that one on my husband — I don’t think I’d own one otherwise! 🙂 I love how the internet can connect me to other people, but I do need to make sure I keep a balance. I need to make sure I read regularly with the iPhone far away, so I won’t be tempted by it.
Amazing Dorothy, seems like you’re writing my thoughts! Every single sentence in your comment is something I would say. I enjoy solitude, but often such a quiet time alone is offset by my laptop, or even more accessible, my iPhone. They’re becoming more and more addictive… especially the iPhone. Anyway, thanks for stopping by to let me see I’m not alone in this struggle!
Like Dorothy comments, I too am a naturally solitary person. I always have been and somehow have managed to create a life where I always am able to fit in some solitary time even with a husband in the house. The internet is definitely a tricky beast that tends to steal that time and sometimes it is a real struggle to find a balance but if it weren’t the internet it would probably be something else. Great post Arti and I love all the thoughtful comments!
Yes, I’m sure it’s much easier for those who’re naturally inclined to enjoy solitude. And you’re right about kicking the Internet/blogging habit to allow for some quiet moments.
Regarding the comments, I always feel that the post is only the beginning, the comments and readers’ response are what’s good about a post! Thanks for leaving yours!
I was without my Fios bundle and felt the withdrawal symptoms. Seriously, if one needs time to be alone and think, bring a sketchbook. Nothing hones the mind and body more than keen observation and concentration!
Interesting thought, Vic… a sketchbook to sharpen observation and focus… even more internal and hands-on than a camera.
“So it’s best not to steer them too close to the cliff!” what a great last line after a good rich entry. What a great forum for Mr. D to be presenting his perspective on solitude – at West Point! I’ll bet it resonated with some of them. I hope it did.
I was delighted to hear this entry. I’m guilty of reading (others’ opinions) as much as possible, especially during this Lent period, but am also writing like a madwoman every day (and this DOES require solitude.)
thanks for this.
thanks for the light poured momentarily on a extremes of a work, eat, care day.
Hey, but I do kinda wish we could actually converse rather than blog-type, but hey, without the might B World, we wouldn’t run into so many wonderful you’s.
I admire you to be able to ‘write like a madwoman everyday’… what a privilege. Writing is probably the best solitary activity, if we can find the time, and the will.
And yes, wouldn’t it be great that we could all meet and talk face to face instead of sending our vibes through bits and bytes in cyberspace. I always have that idea in mind… for a movie script.
Something occurred to me last night…
In the process of writing my new post, I’ve just spent a good bit of time thinking about my life as an only child.
It really would be interesting to explore adult attitudes toward and comfort with solitude in the light of their early family structure. As an only child, I was accustomed to playing by myself. I can’t help but think that experience shaped my current comfort with solitude.
It would be interesting to know how people who grew up in larger families feel about the issue.
Arti, wonderful. I want to first post a comment in response to your good post, and then read comments and respond to them.
Everything about this resonates with me. I wrote a post a while ago about reading an article on this topic (http://ruthie822.blogspot.com/2009/03/technology-overload-vs-world-in-cup.html), and how studies have shown that we are losing the capacity to think in certain ways, and read books, because of the different brain mechanisms for browsing and searching the Internet. I wrote there how proud I was that I was still reading The Ambassadors – which took me an entire year – because I was reading a little longer mid-book than I was at the start. That’s not the same as writing, but it feels like the same part of the brain and the same slowing down.
I firmly believe that we, as humans, are not meant to live as we do – working M-F, 8-5, flying across the world or country, creating leisure time. I think we’re meant to live together in communities of families/friends, raise our food, build our buildings, teach our children by example and mentoring – apprenticing, supporting each other, SLOWLY. Without this connection to survival, I feel we are pretending to live.
Ok, now I’m going to read the comments.
Ok, after reading the excellent comments, I remembered that I had wanted to say something about thinking for oneself, which is your salient point in this piece. When I wrote that post I mentioned, I was thinking how much I was being influenced by blogs and talking heads. Something would happen in the world, the media would cover it, and then bloggers would blog about it. All of that slants the actual event, filters it through people’s perceptions. (Think Limbaugh and Jon Stewart.) Slowing down and really absorbing and thinking about an event, a circumstance, whatever, is something we don’t seem to take the time to do. For one thing, I would have to really study a given topic to be an expert on it. So I have to rely on voices I trust to “hear” most of it. It’s kind of frightening, actually. Just too much information!
As for all that texting. I watch students leave class and immediately pull their cell phones out and text someone. There is constant interaction to update what someone at the other end hasn’t heard in a couple hours. Extraordinary.
As for growing up the youngest of 8 kids, and solitude, I wish I could say I was a thinker who found ways to go inside. But I was so removed from myself and my soul, I think I was just living the life my parents and church wanted me to live. All that has changed, and I now think and feel for myself. Solitude is mandatory, if I don’t get at least one weekly fix of it for a few hours, I will get completely out of balance.
It’s really a complex issue, this business about birth order and personality. Anyway, without doing any research, I feel that the only child may have higher resilience in counteracting loneliness, but could still have the need for social interactions that ought to be met somehow. However, siblings or not, we’re so connected through the internet that I’m afraid the trend could result in the replacement of siblings and even real-life friends!
Thanks for the link to your post, Ruth. It is relevant in today’s highly connected world in that there’s a need to go smaller yet deeper, rather than wider but shallower, especially in terms of human interactions. As far as information goes, in-depth could also generate credibility. But I know, we only have 24 hours in a day… So, it goes back to the need for solitude, just to quietly sit still and sift through the sensory overload.
Both your perceptive comments are much appreciated here on Ripple Effects. I thank you two for spending the time to read through my post and all the comments before writing your thoughtful response!