What 4 People Discovered While Living in Solitude
The effects of long-term social isolation are harrowing and well-documented, and include depression, poor health outcomes, and premature death. This is especially true when individuals don’t choose to be isolated, as in the case of solitary confinement — which activists are working to have classified as torture — or, more commonly, the widespread isolation faced by many older adults in contemporary Western society.
But what about those who, for purposes of adventure, feelings of difference or exclusion, spiritual seeking, or simple preference, choose solitude? While the vast majority of us require social stimulation and a network of support, a select few have chosen, and ostensibly benefited from, a life of reclusiveness.
Why do some people choose to retreat from social interaction? And what do they find when they do it?
1. Inner Peace
It may seem trite, but many people who have willingly chosen solitude have done so in order to attain a sense of rest and peace, finding quiet itself to have healing properties.
Former British Marine commando John Slater certainly thought so. After his military service ended, he gained notoriety — and a world record title — for walking the entire length of Great Britain alone, save his border collie (barefoot and in his pajamas, no less). Afterward, he grew the requisite beard and lived alone in a remote Scotland cave for many years. Though his penchant for taking off to live alone in caves didn’t do wonders for his multiple marriages, he told The Herald that, in many ways, it saved him:
“There is also a cathedral-like silence which helps me think. I’m addicted to harmony . . . restfulness. You realise the planet’s breathing, that the same energy moving these stones is moving your heart.’’
2. The Hum of the Natural World
Eustace Conway, or, as Elizabeth Gilbert called him in her 2002 biography, The Last American Man, first spent an extended period alone at 12, when he wandered into the woods like a would-be messiah and lived off the land for a week. At 17, he left home to live alone in a tipi, where he spent the following two decades.
Having walked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, backpacked over 5,000 miles across multiple continents, canoed 1,000 miles down the Mississippi River, and kayaked along the southern coast of Alaska, Conway has lived his core principles — of naturalism, environmental preservation, self-sufficiency, and the importance of eschewing apathy — in real time.
Conway’s brand of solitude, however, is far from a lonely one. He told Smoky Mountain Living:
“You’re not alone because there’s a whole forest around you that’s a rich and thriving community, and you’re just a visiting member in a huge community,” he emphasized. “It’s important for us to recognize that these mountains are the home for thousands of creatures before the human beings and will be after we’re gone.
“I hope,” he added, quietly.
3. Unity Within Oneself
American poet Emily Dickinson’s name is virtually synonymous with the notion of a reclusive lifestyle, conjuring images of the years she spent living alone in her Massachusetts home. Speculation as to the reasons for her solitude have ranged from health problems to depression (and other mental illnesses, such as agoraphobia) to unrequited love, fear of marriage, love for other women that was at that time impossible to realize, and private spiritual longings. Often clad in white and perceived by the community as a strange local figure, Dickinson never married and was thus an anomaly of her time.
There’s plenty of evidence, however, in both her poetry and her letters to others, that Dickinson preferred solitude for creative and spiritual reasons. She often wrote about the usefulness of alone time in cultivating the soul, the mind, and reason. Here, she writes about the significance and depth of knowledge of the self as it unfolds:
THERE is a solitude of space,
A solitude of sea,
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be,
Compared with that profounder site,
That polar privacy,
A Soul admitted to Itself:
4. The Spiritual World
Historically, nuns, monks, and other clergy members or recognized spiritual leaders have sometimes lived in solitude in order to focus entirely on their pursuit of oneness with and worship of the divine.
Rachel Denton, a nun who has lived in almost complete seclusion since her retirement from teaching in 2002, is one of the few remaining recognized Roman Catholic hermits in Britain. Despite being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, she continued her solitary life, achieving a degree of self-sufficiency through online shopping, gardening, and farming to provide for her physical needs.
She told the Daily Mail that she had always preferred alone time, finding it infinitely more peaceful and satisfying than human interaction, and that her primary goal in her choice of hermitage was a religious one:
“A hermit is a person who chooses to live alone, and does that with the intention of, in some sense, finding God.”