The Corona-virus pandemic has forced the world to virtually shut down. It has also forced the most extroverted of us to stay at home, away from the eyes of the world and of friends. What extroverts are feeling right now is not strange to the likes of me. The sense of suffocation is ever present in the functioning normal world for introverts.
Solitude is not the feeling of suffocation. Solitude is not merely the state of being alone. No one understood it better than Henry David Thoreau. He saw solitude as a “companion”. This is what led him to live alone near Walden pond. He was “alone” only in the conventional sense of the word. He was separated from members of his own species and the daily monotonous state of life. However, he was surrounded by the wild free venison, the rabbits and patridges, the snow covered plains,blossoms of fruits and the unexplored woods. Why did he went to the woods? I’ll let Thoreau speak for himself:-
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
I feel content every time I read those lines. An individual who’s scared of solitude might find Thoreau’s endeavor to be rather futile. But isn’t beauty the ultimate goal that humans strive for?
Before Thoreau, the romantic poet John Keats too treated Solitude as a person. As a friend. The idea of experiencing solitude “among the jumbled heaps of murky buildings” terrified him. Instead, he wanted to experience solitude in “Nature’s observatory”. Keats, unfortunately, never got a chance to experience it as intensely as Thoreau. He lived a lonely life. His attempt to make peace with solitude almost seemed forced(evident through the first lines of the poem “O Solitude!”).
Some readers might find Keats and Thoreau’s views to be too romanticized. Friedrich Nietzsche would agree. We are surrounded by people who tell us what to do, what to think , what to feel, what to believe and what to speak. Most of us sincerely believe that these people care about us. They want the best for us. Thus, the idea of questioning the existing norms eludes us entirely. Sometimes, we recognize the harm and suffering that these norms cause us. We seek to find another group instead with better norms and values. This pursuit, to me, is not the way out.
“He who seeks may easily get lost himself. It is a crime to go apart and be alone’ — thus speaks the herd” — Friedrich Nietzsche
For Nietzsche, this was herd mentality. The way out of this is to separate yourself from the herd. It is the lonely philosopher who “offers a refuge from the tyranny” of the establishment(government,religions&public norms) by opening up the “inner sanctuary or the center of heart’s labyrinthe”(Nietzsche, 1874)
When we separate ourselves from the herd, we start a process of self introspection and find things which truly matter to us. Some of us might find things that shake us to the core. Perhaps this subconscious fear is why most of us don’t dare to question the herd. For instance, many of us might find that the job that we do is the reason for our feelings of hopelessness. The acceptance of this might eventually lead to decisions which, at least temporarily, would destabilize us. However, this will prove to be more fulfilling for us in the long term.
Solitude also enhances creative thinking. It allows the mind to reflect and form original ideas. Great artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Dylan and Dostoevsky have managed to successfully capitalize on their solitude. The lack of societal constraints allows artists to expand the boundaries of their thinking.
All of this is not to say that there is no danger at all in Solitude. For some, solitude might be too chaotic. It might lead to the growth of the “beast within”. Thus, Nietzsche wrote “many should be dissuaded from solitude”. To avoid this, we must want solitude. It must not be forced upon us. Loneliness is forced but solitude is voluntary.
The image of Sisyphus rolling the boulder comes to my mind again. The idea seems futile to him initially. But he realizes that the pursuit of other goals is unfeasible. The only goal he can pursue is the rolling of the boulder. There comes a moment when Sisyphus enjoys the seemingly futile task. He wants to roll the boulder now. And that’s when he smiles.
We must all be like Sisyphus now. We must all voluntarily choose to enjoy solitude.