Whosoever is delighted in solitude, is either a wild beast or a god.
– Francis Bacon
Solitude, my refuge as a boy, felt like imprisonment for much of my later life. From my last year in high school and through my 20s, I struggled ceaselessly to avoid it.
I structured my life to reinforce connection. I hitch-hiked across the United States and Canada to force myself to ask strangers for rides and places to stay. I lived with roommates so that I was seldom really alone. I made arrangements to meet friends for meals and a movie even when I could afford neither and was living mainly on brown rice and omelets. I found work as a reporter to force myself to interview strangers, and as a teacher to push myself out of solitude and into connection with my students.
E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” became my motto, and without frequent connection, particularly intimate connection, I often collapsed into despondency. Solitude became a necessary evil. The time I spent writing, although absorbing, was time subtracted from connection. I became one of the pioneer users of telephone answering machines (in those days, bulky reel-to-reel tape recorders) because I did not want to risk missing a call, an opportunity for connection, while I was out researching a story. My fear was that if I spent too much time by myself, I would revert to an isolated child again, not only alone but also lonely. I had found connection, and I didn’t want solitude to take it away.
Through my 30s and beyond, I became more tolerant of literal time alone, but I still dreaded periods between intimate relationships and tended to stay in them even when it was apparent that the center did not hold. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending weekends only in my own company or scrambling to make plans with friends, each hour of contact like an oasis in a desert of disconnection. Worse, still, was the ever-present sense of having nobody to share my life with, day by day.
I noticed, however, that a different paradigm seemed to apply when I traveled. Although I was not, strictly speaking, “alone” on my hitch-hiking and motorcycling trips, I was only rarely accompanied by a traveling companion. Yet, only rarely did I feel lonely. Why, I wondered, was solitude not an issue when I was on the road?
More puzzling still was my most extreme period of aloneness, a near-death experience I had in 1993. In that experience, although I was isolated even from memories, sensations, and my own identity, I felt more connected than ever before and – beyond any meditation or psychedelic experience, beyond even passionate love – completely whole and at peace.
Theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich wrote: “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.”
I see now that my fear of solitude was that I’d never be connected again. When I traveled, I knew that I’d eventually meet someone on the road, or I’d stop to visit briefly with a friend along the way. These points of contact were places from which I could launch myself into the unknown with excitement, much as children with a secure attachment experiences their caregivers as a “home base” from which they can venture forth, knowing there will always be someone to welcome them when they return. Over time, the insecure child in me has come to understand that he, too, has places that will always welcome him.
Inside each of us is the seed of an empathic connection with everything. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this ever-present interconnectedness “interbeing” and talks about how everything “inter-is” with everything else. Understanding how connection transcends physical separation alters the nature of solitude.
Fully embracing interbeing is still a work in progress for me, but as I’ve become increasingly comfortable in my own skin, solitude has become a more quiescent place to be, and “alone” a condition that is no longer lonely.
Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas
52 (more) Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
52 Flower Mandalas: An Adult Coloring Book for Inspiration and Stress Relief
Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)
… and coming soon, The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World