The Necessity of Solitude
Reflections on a book by Octavio Paz
If I’ve learned anything so far, it is the necessity of solitude. The moment you say goodbye to all of your friends and family, go on a “hero’s journey,” you begin to see how vast life is and how small you are. When you are alone, you realize what your opinion of yourself is.
It has been six months since I have been living in China and a big part of this journey has been my experience reading “The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Other Mexico, Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexico and the United States, the Philanthropic Ogre” by Octavio Paz. This book has taught me a lot about why solitude is necessary for one’s growth. The book itself is filled with a rich history of Mexican culture and an examination of the mental state of loneliness. Below is a list of reflections from my favorite passages in this book. I hope that after reading these reflections, you consider what aspects of your life that could be reflected upon with some necessary “alone time.”
On defining your identity
“To live is to be separated from what we were in order to approach what we are going to be in the mysterious future…Man is the only being who knows he is alone…His nature…consists in his longing to realize himself in another…Hence the feeling that we are alone has a double significance: on the one hand, it is self-awareness, and on the other, it is a longing to escape from ourselves.” Pg. 195
- Often, one may become fixated with the negative qualities associated with the feeling of loneliness. One of these primary qualities, that being the fear that the isolation may last forever, tends to overshadow the benefits solitude can have for us. When we are alone, truly alone without modern technological distractions, we give ourselves the time for self-examination. We can begin to consider which aspects of our own identity originate from the groups we are members of and which have been adopted of our own volition.
“And all of us in our own lives, and within our limitations, have lived in solitude and retirement, in order to purify ourselves and then return to the world.” Pg. 205
- Seeking solitude is okay. It helps develop a mental environment in which we can become our own best friend. Being aware of the number one asset in our lives — the conversations we have with ourselves — can only come about when we integrate a practice of seeking solitude throughout our daily routine. Without a practice of consistent reflection on our daily affairs, we never give ourselves the opportunity to learn from those experiences. Instead we allow each passing moment to be wasted, for each has an insight for us that can be obtained only if we take the time to reflect upon them.
“What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?” Pg. 9
- When we are alone, we can begin to discover what we represent to ourselves. When we don’t reflect on how we treat ourselves within the space of our own mind, this becomes detrimental. If we constantly pass harsh criticisms on ourselves that is unjustified, that can lead to harmful behavior over time. If one does not evaluate the relationship they have with themselves, they can never improve upon it. Long periods of solitude can help expose these relationships and also shed light on the causes to their current states.
The individual’s role in society
“‘No one is either saved or damned on his own account,’ and each person’s actions affect the entire group…The fact of having been born within the group no longer assures a man that he belongs: he has to be worthy of belonging.” Pages 206–7.
- Once one begins to consider how they define their own self-image, they then must juxtapose this image with the greater whole of society. Are there lessons to be learned from how people react towards me? How does my behavior change when I am around others versus to when I am alone? The answers to these questions can only be gleaned from reflecting on our experiences within the group (within our daily activities). And sometimes our own identity can become inflated because of unrealistic expectations we hold for ourselves, that can only be exposed when other people’s perspectives challenge our own. This can be healthy and help us grow if we are surrounded by people who expose our shortcomings in order to help us; if we surround ourselves with a group who has our best interest at heart.
“Society is an organism that suffers the strange necessity of justifying its ends and appetites. Sometimes its ends — disguised as moral precepts — coincide with the desires and needs of those who comprise it. But sometimes they deny the aspirations of important minorities or classes, and too often they even end man’s profoundest instincts…Its components cease to be human beings and are converted into mere soulless instruments.” Pg. 201
- One of the many dangers that can happen when we are in a group is when the group’s agenda supersedes the individuals. This is where we find the conflict between individualism and collectivism. Where does one draw the line between selfishness and empathy with others? For the main issue is that in order for us to find purpose in life, we must eventually do something meaningful in the service of others. However, if the people we are serving decide to use with no symbiotic benefit in return, we run the risk of being discarded when we are no longer beneficial to them.
“Order — juridical, social, religious or artistic — brings security and stability, and a person has only to adjust to the models and principles that regulate life: he can express himself without resorting to the perpetual inventiveness demanded by a free society.” Pg. 32
- We are molded by the orientation of our education both within our family life and within the institutions that give us foundational knowledge of the world. Kids are more in touch with who they are because they have no orientation and training to conform to the rules of the society they will live in. They exude the happiness within themselves and maintain it with their imagination. Once we begin our education is when we start to conform to the regulations and expectations that others have of us. This is when our imagination becomes hindered. We are often taught what to think and not how to think (we aren’t taught how to self-educate which should be the primary role of our education). Solitude helps us develop practices of self-education. One concrete goal that we can chart out for ourselves when we schedule time for self-reflection is to discover how we learn best. Once this discovery is made, any objective one may have will not seem impossible, for we will be more adept at obtaining the knowledge and skills to achieve them.
Considering our legacies
“It is useless to exclude death from our images, our words, our ideas, because death will obliterate all of us, beginning with those who ignore it or pretend to ignore it.” Pg. 60
- It is essential to consider the inevitability and role of death in our own lives. Without brooding on what is to come, reflecting on our deaths can help us bring our priorities to the forefront and allow us to reconsider what we value.
“Our deaths illuminate our lives. If our deaths lack meaning, our lives also lacked it…Tell me how you die and I will tell you who you are.” Pg. 54
- One exercise we can conduct when we are alone is to create a narrative of our lives. Until today, how would you describe the plot of your life? How do you perceive yourself as the main character? If you were to tell this story to those closest to you, would the image you hold in your head be the same as the image others have of you?
- Another exercise is to write your own eulogy. What do you expect to happen in the remainder of your life? This exercise can help with reorganizing our current goals and help to eliminate anything that may be distracting you.
I appreciate the role this book has played. It’s timely entrance into life during my move outside of the United States, while I am away from my friends and family has helped me to cope with my new environment. Even though I have made new friends while I am living in China, I still have days when I feel alone. However, I have now learned how to appreciate this loneliness, to utilize practices that can help me grow both mentally and emotionally while experiencing solitude.
As with any of my book reviews and reflection articles, this piece can never replace the book itself. If you are in need of something new to read, I highly recommend Octavio Paz’s book “The Labyrinth of Solitude: The Other Mexico, Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude, Mexico and the United States, the Philanthropic Ogre.”
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