Our society fears solitude. The pursuit of constant company is a pervasive and powerful habit in modern culture. That’s not to say society is great at fostering deep relationships, but the desire to be with others, to be popular, to be “known”, runs deep. True solitude is an elimination of all social inputs, meaningful and trivial alike–that’s what scares people. These inputs in today’s context include social networking (along with other forms of online interaction), television, and even listening to music while studying or walking to class. Solitude involves giving those up in addition to interpersonal interaction. As inherently relational creatures, a state of absolute aloneness frightens most people. Why? Solitude, like nothing else, forces you to confront yourself.
This summer I spent a month and a half renovating my grandfather’s boat. Tucked away for weeks at a time in the small island town of Friday Harbor, Washington, I soon recognized my own struggle with being alone. I found it simultaneously terrifying and attractive, difficult and fulfilling. I also discovered that I have greatly misunderstood the true nature of solitude–and in this misperception, ironically, I am not alone. Every morning in the harbor I awoke to the shrill cries of seagulls and sunshine streaming through the portholes. No alarm was necessary to start my day. I ate breakfast on the boat’s open aft deck while Popeye, the local harbor seal, hunted for his daily catch. There was no “good morning” greeting; with whom was I to speak? No mother scrambled eggs in the kitchen, no housemates stumbled tiredly out the door to class, no other boat owners lived on my dock. Late May isn’t a particularly bustling time in Friday Harbor; school hasn’t quite ended and boaters’ vacations haven’t quite started. Essentially, I found myself in the most isolated situation I had ever been in.
It sounds like paradise, I know. But it took a long time to fully appreciate my situation. I felt terrible for the first week on the boat. I was unsure of myself and I was disconnected from friends and family. Without conversations, seeing other people, or even checking my email, everything I did or felt from the moment I awoke was on me; that made me very uncomfortable. This was the first sign that I had become dependent on others. Interaction had developed into the ruler by which I measured my own contentment and well-being. Only through complete removal of this crutch was I able to realize that I was impaired at all. I recognized, for the first time, that I had been living my life in comparative terms.
In our modern cultural context, we are taught, explicitly or implicitly, that happiness and purpose are issues of relativity. We ask not “do I have all I need to be content?” but “what do I have compared to the ‘norm’?” Not, “what should I spend my day doing?” but “what do I need to do according to society’s ideal of productivity?” When we are never alone, our actions and feelings are directly shaped by those around us–in person, online, and on the television. That is why stripping them away is so intimidating. Solitude forces us into self-examination and self-reliance we rarely experience. Orfield Labs in Minneapolis, Minnesota has taken this fear to the extreme with its anechoic chamber–a room with a -9 decibel sound level that absorbs 99.9% of all noise. It holds the Guinness World Record for the quietest room in the world. When someone sits alone in the room, it gets so quiet that they can start to hear their own internal organs. They lose all ability to stand (their ears can no longer properly establish balance) and eventually begin hallucinating. The most time anybody has spent in the chamber alone is 45 minutes.¹ Naturally, silence does not equate solitude, but the anechoic chamber does serve to illustrate a valuable point: humans have immense difficulty with the elimination of external input.
It is clear that humans inherently dread isolation, both physical and social. But I would attest that giving in to our fear may be preventing us from experiencing surprising benefits. During my time on the boat I would take an hour or so each day to go into town and grab a coffee and some food. In my normal life this would seem trivial. But in the harbor something strange happened: I began to value even the most minuscule interaction those errands brought. Instead of tiredly mumbling out a coffee order, I made an effort to hold a short but genuine conversation with the barista. When the grocery store clerk asked how my day was I responded honestly and wanted to hear about his day as well. I didn’t consciously make these decisions; they followed from having spent the rest of my day away from people.
The more time we spend in solitude, the more quality our social interactions become. I don’t necessarily advocate hanging out at Orfield Labs, but intentionally removing ourselves from others for short periods of time can be a valuable practice. In economics we learn that scarcity increases the value of a good; relationships are no different. Healthy solitude makes us more relational when given the opportunity. It also helps us better understand ourselves. How are we to really think for ourselves when we are constantly influenced by others’ opinions and ideas?
In Friday Harbor I realized how long it had been since I’d been able to truly think. Over-saturation of social input had decreased the quality of my intellectual output. A good balance of solitude and social interaction, by contrast, allows me to process things on my own and thus be surer of myself–of what I actually know, think, feel and believe. In turn, this increases the value I can put into conversations and relationships with others. One of the greatest dangers to a society that fears solitude is the ever-blurring line between original thought and recitation of others’ opinions. In the recent presidential election political ads had a powerful influence on voter knowledge and opinions. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania published a study in September on national political knowledge. This included questions regarding the falsity of misleading statements from political ads. Notably, they found that only 41.6% of respondents knew it was not true that Mitt Romney was committed to work towards elimination of abortion in all circumstances. 35.8% knew that President Obama had not “repeatedly apologized for America” while visiting other countries. Additionally, only 15.7% knew that Bain Capital hadn’t actually outsourced jobs to other countries while Mitt Romney was leading the firm.²
As this study suggests, our society is frighteningly susceptible to outside influence in decision-making. This condition is just as dangerous, if not more so, for modern Christians. We can’t even vote without being directed by external information and deception; how then, are we supposed to determine what religion, what worldview, what values, are actually worth upholding? If we don’t take time to be alone–to think, pray and read scripture on our own–where do we find the foundation of our faith? In catchy, inspirational tweets? By unquestionably following whatever pastor or televangelist appeals to our personality? Christian discussion, teaching, and even debate are wonderful tools for nurturing faith but, like political discourse, they are greatly weakened or greatly abused when merely a conglomeration of reworded and regurgitated thoughts heard from someone else. Solitude allows us to maintain firm doctrine within the ebbs and flows of cultural norms if we use that solitude to delve into scripture, ask tough questions and seek truth. It gives us the opportunity to build an infrastructure of belief, morality and purpose that will hold steady and be applicable to any society. A foundation that is pieced together within a single context, however, will be susceptible to destruction when the tides change.
Over my summer I learned the valuable role solitude plays in personal and spiritual development, as well as improving the way people interact. But two crucial things must be remembered in order to retain its value: 1. Solitude and loneliness are not the same thing. Loneliness is the state of being alone when one wishes to be with others; it is involuntary. It is also possible to be lonely and still be bombarded by many of the social inputs discussed above. Solitude, on the other hand, is intentional aloneness. It is a conscious decision to step away from social interaction for a time in order to better oneself and one’s relationships. A lonely person ought to pursue quality relationships. It’s healthy and necessary, having spent unwanted time alone, to seek interaction. (In a way, a lonely person has already experienced the confrontation of self one finds in solitude, and simply desires to be able to express that growth in a social context.) In this sense, solitude and loneliness are not the same thing, nor will solitude lead to loneliness. When treated properly, they are distinct situations that will ideally both result in self-confidence and better relationships with others.
2. Solitude, like most things, is best in moderation. I am not advocating a hermit lifestyle. I would argue that as relational beings we ought to place emphasis on the relational effect of solitude. There is little point in being sociable and surer of oneself if one never experiences interaction. But solitude and community can complement one another. Socializing, conversing and even social networking provide inputs that, when processed in healthy solitude, lead to confident participation, originality, and authenticity. Fear of solitude can be a dangerous thing. It can stifle creative thought, weaken the foundations of faith, and shroud purpose in a fog of relativity. People are inherently relational; even the most introverted individual wishes to be known. But if we can acknowledge the benefit of well-balanced solitude and make time to develop ourselves free from distraction, our self-confidence, relationships, faith and society will be noticeably stronger.
2. Annenberg Public Policy Center, ”The Public Still has a Lot to Learn About the 2012 Presidential Race but Those Who Seek out Fact Checking on the Internet Know More”, University of Pennsylvania, http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/NewsDetails.aspx?myId=497 (accessed 9 Feb. 2013).
Nolan Burger C’15 is a hipster in denial. He writes on solitude and boats.
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, University of Penn