The Value of Solitude

by Denny Olson

Denny Olson

“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.” – Paul Tillich

We are a social species, and for good reasons. Feeling part of a community leads to healthier immune systems and disease survival, better motor skills and cognition, and living longer lives. We are “packish”, “clannish” and “village-y”. Belonging is a paramount strategy for survival and well-being.

Being “alone” almost always has negative connotations. The concept of “loneliness” likely drives the busy-ness of our social contacts. This is especially true of our younger generations, even young children. Smart phones, pagers, car radios, televisions and an expectation of wi-fi service wherever we go — all help to make sure that we aren’t really alone. We take smart phones to bed with us, and laptops when we “get away” on vacation. We are only a push of a button away from contact. With stimuli coming from every direction, we are multi-tasking almost constantly. And, socially, our culture implies that being alone is equivalent to “lacking” something, or someone. “Alone” humans feel pressure to be apologetic about it.

Interestingly, a casual “google” on the word “solitude” brings up a profusion of articles tying solitude to being “alone with God” or alone with one’s self – both of which are oxymorons. It is impossible to be alone and “with” at the same time. The terms seem to arise from a need for reassurance that being alone (with no one) is inherently frightening.

When practiced, solitude isn’t nearly as scary as it might seem to those who shy from it. And it does seem to have some research-based benefits. Student who study solo have better recall than those who study in groups. It is simply mathematical – more distractions, less concentration. Teenagers, whose lives are developmentally more susceptible to peer pressure, usually don’t describe solitude as a positive experience, but do admit to feeling better afterward, and are less likely to self-report depression.

When indigenous cultures were more traditionally tied to nature, which happened on every continent and island, solitude was celebrated and formalized with multi-day vision quests, tests of self-sufficiency, and personal growth. Solitude had power, and was sanctified even in the Christian tradition by Jesus of Nazareth himself; according to accounts in gospels written by Matthew, Mark and Luke, he spent 40 solid days and nights in the wilderness, in solitude. He certainly knew that extended, direct contact with nature breaks all complexity into its basic simple truths. 

Many Eastern traditions have solo meditation, often in natural settings, as a central tenet in the path to “enlightenment”. For the most part, they choose a very quiet place where distractions are minimal before starting the meditative process. Usually, that is in a natural setting.

From my experiences with extended solitude, I can opine that being alone is not easy — without the help of a sensory deprivation tank. But solitude is a bit different in purpose. On a four-day solo canoe trip in Ontario, I did not see another human — even at a distance. Yet, every evening at dark, mosquitoes and bats came calling. Crayfish entertained me foraging in the rocks next to shore. I watched a garter snake sense a June-beetle on the far side of a rock with it’s vibration-sensitive belly, circle the rock, and have a small crunchy lunch. When I was sitting quietly in the campsite, a juvenile palm warbler insisted on perching on my toe for a part of each day, using it as a foraging lookout. Wolves howled behind camp two nights in a row. When I napped in the afternoon near (but not too near) the precipice of a sheer greenstone cliff overlooking my campsite, ravens and bald eagles circled and cackled, probably hoping I was taking the proverbial permanent nap. (I did indeed dream, with calm detachment for some reason, about decomposing on an elevated wicket, a la some indigenous traditions, with the wind cleaning dried flesh from my bones.) I was alone, but never felt lonely.

Solitude eliminates distraction and allows us to recalibrate our sense of self, examine our relationships without the distractions of being in the relationship, allows us to see more subtle – but not less important – things, and to inventory our daily messages and prioritize them. We can be calmer and sharper. I came back from that canoe trip with clarity about what were priorities, and what were consuming distractions. And that afternoon dream reminded me that I didn’t have unlimited time to sort them.

Stimulation usually comes from outside ourselves, and inspiration usually from within. The number of stimuli we encounter in our daily lives keeps thinking reactive and therefore shallow and unfocused. The real power in solitude is the unfettered descent into deeper thought, on perhaps a single topic. It passes directly through cleverness into the realm of wisdom. I would submit that our children should be taught how to sit quietly in nature, how to take comfort in it, and how to learn from those experiences. Owen Sowerwine Natural Area Seems like the perfect big-enough, but close to town, place for that. School field trips are planned, and solitude is in the curriculum.