Solitude

Growing up as an only child with a father who worked six nights a week, and a mother who was often out in the evening,  being alone became for me the default state of my experience. It was being with others that required notice on my part.

Solitude. Some find it fearful; some find it irksome; some don’t mind being alone. Some find solace in it. I found it, for want of a better word, normal. Over the many years of my life, I have been alone a great deal. What does solitude mean? The dictionary tells us it means: living or being alone, without others, solitary, single. What I take that to mean is that we are alone and in solitude when we are not with other people. Being alone means being self contained in some way, and for that to be the case there must be what we call me or I and what we call not-I or not-me. There has to be something else that exists besides us for us to be alone; we have to be set apart in some away or left out or not noticed to be alone in this sense. This is a kind of physical being alone.

There is also being alone intellectually. When I was going through engineering school as an NYU undergraduate, I was surrounded by engineers, all male engineeers. My questions about life and meaning and understanding what this world meant and what it was about and why we were here didn’t sit well with engineers. If you couldn’t calculate it on a slide rule (this was a long time ago, obviously) or you couldn’t plot it on a graph or measure it in a laboratory, it didn’t exist as far as engineers were concerned. I was alone with my thoughts during those years.

There is also being emotionally alone. When my first wife died of lung cancer at 46, she left me alone with our children and the rest of my life. I came to understand that others could empathize and be sympathetic, but I was alone with what I felt, because if they hadn’t lost a spouse, they couldn’t really identify with the experience.  So, there is the solitude of your own experience that others haven’t had and can’t share because they haven’t been there.

There is also the aloneness of losing my illusions. I know the aloneness of losing a best friend at 24, and wondering what he thought as the plane he was on plunged into the wintery North Atlantic near Iceland on a dark, rainy night. I know the aloneness of losing a mother to alcoholism, a wife to lung cancer and a son to suicide. I know the aloneness of losing my youth, and losing my parents. There are so many ways to be alone, but through all of those varying fracturing and renting solitudes, I was still left, and I was left with a choice, Hamlet’s choice, to be or not to be. I could continue or not. Camus, the French existentialist. has claimed that the first philosophical question is suicide, which is to say, why are you here.  Through all the experiences of loss, of pain, of hope and joy,  we make a choice to continue to be here. I choose to be here because this life is precious to me. I cherish it, and the solitude that living brings in so many ways is part of what it means to live in this ever changing world.

But once I was alone, I discovered there was another aspect to solitude besides being cut off from someone or something. There was also a connection, a connection with myself. In solitude, I was faced with me as I just more or less was. I wasn’t accommodating to circumstances. I wasn’t aligning with to socialize with them. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I wasn’t trying  to convince anyone. I wasn’t pursuing any goal related to others. When I was alone, there was no immediate influence from others, and that led to more than I realized.

I remember walking along the ocean’s shore on many cold winter days. The wind would blow cold and sharp on my face, but it felt good, refreshing and revitalizing. I would use those walks to process opportunities and obstacles in my life. Was there anything I could do to influence my mother to stop her drinking? Was there anything I could do to stop her drive towards her own death? Did I want to get married to this remarkable woman or was my singleness more important to me? What were the failings and limits in me that kept me from accomplishing what I said I wanted? What could I do for my children to enhance their lives? Could I sustain the commitment to complete the schooling I needed to become a philosophy teacher? These and many other questions got processed over the years in my times of solitude. Not that I necessarily thought about each question in a specific way. It was rather that the time of solitude unpacked my life in various ways that I couldn’t appreciate or get to when I was with others.

In that kind of context, solitude is a source of insight, of rejuvenation and of renewal. It is as if being alone puts me in touch with aspects and parts of my being that get drowned out in the noisiness of being with others. The quiet of solitude offers a resurgence of my own depths, even when I am not fully aware of what’s happening.

In this paradoxical manner, we are not alone when we are alone; I connect to depths that hide from me in social settings. Solitude can be rending and it can be healing and it can be enlightening. I hear myself starting to sound paradoxical in the way that Vasistha speaks.

I find there is great power in solitude.  It is not the only state I seek, but when I am in solitude, there is a richness to what is there. What is there is me as I know myself, and that is very mixed. I am there with my dreams, my hopes, my regrets, my mistakes, my efforts, my ideas, my accomplishments; I am there with my life with all that it has been: good and bad, happy and sad, painful and joyful, silly and profound, hopeful and disillusioned,  meaningful and meaningless, important and trivial. I am there with the endless array of experiences that make my life what it has been so far. I am there with the possibilities yet to be realized. Solitude has many faces.

I ease back on the stick, and the high wing, two seater aircraft starts to leave the earth. I am in the Army’s “bird dog” aircraft; it’s a multi- purposed craft that is mostly for reconaissance, but right now, I am just flying for myself. I ease off my flaps, and level off at 500 feet, flying over the Arizona desert, not the endless, rolling dunes of the Sahara, but a flat plain of scrub brush, cactuses, arroyos and gravel and dirt. It is a stark vista, but I love the solitude and starkness. The windows on either side of me are open, and the hot desert air blows by me, warming my face. I look out on this seemingly barren landscape, but know that when I land at the practice field we’ve set up to shoot takeoffs and landings in the middle of this desert, and I walk on its surface, I will see that it is actually teeming with the life of the desert. Scorpions and snakes and rabbits and spiders and cacti of all kinds live here in a kind of brutal harmony with this desert. It is not barren to them; it is where they hang out and try to survive. And so too, is my life. I hang out in my life and try to survive.

As I soar over the desert, I fly closer to the arid, barren dun colored and foliage free mountains that border the valley. On the windward side I cruise in near them at 2000 feet and pull back on the throttle, but with the power off, I don’t go down, I go up. I play the windward lifting thermals off the mountains and end up soaring to 6000 feet, all on the power of the wind. I am alone and I am exhilarated; I feel at one with my environment, but I keep an eye on my fuel gauge and engine instruments all the same. This is yet another experience of solitude. It comes in many guises and offers many revelations. I turn for the base to return to earth, to others and to the end of this solitude.

Enjoy your solitude. Use your solitude

Check out my website and my E-book for more reflections

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About The Practical Philosopher

I am a retired Philosophy professor. I taught philosophy for 43 years, and I would like to share some of what I have found pursuing the fascinating journey of philosophy.
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