On Loneliness and Solitude

Solitude

An article in Time describes a “plague of loneliness” exacerbated by social distancing during the pandemic.  But being alone does not mean being lonely.  Some dread solitude.  Others use it to create, think, and dream. 

Loneliness can be caused by social conditions.  The isolation of the pandemic provides an obvious example.  An isolating culture can reinforce psychological pathologies such as agoraphobia and social anxiety. 

But solitude can be inspiring.  Poets and philosophers have often affirmed it.  Emerson said, “people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”  By “vulgar” Emerson means “ordinary.”  Emersonian solitude seeks to transcend the ordinary.  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agreed.  They imagined the great soul rising above the vulgar masses, alone on a mountaintop.   

This is a typically masculine idea, patronizing and condescending.  Men have traditionally been free to indulge heroic individualism.  Women were not permitted the luxury of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”—a refuge for creative individuality.

Freedom and creativity are essential for avoiding the dread of loneliness.  Solitude is not dreadful when freely chosen.  To be forced into solitary confinement is a terrible punishment.  But the mystic chooses silent meditation and the poet retreats to her private room. 

The dread of loneliness is connected to boredom.  Lonely people are isolated with nothing to do.  But solitude can be replete with activity.  Indeed, some activities require us to be alone.

Hannah Arendt explained the difference between the productive solitude of the life of the mind and a more dreadful kind of loneliness.  In loneliness, you exist as a mere object and not as an active thinking being.  But in productive solitude, you keep good company with yourself. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once claimed that he was the loneliest person he knew.  He understood that loneliness gives rise to the desire for self-expression.  But he also knew that loneliness lingers as the after-effect of the creative act, an emptiness that remains after your song has been sung.

Wolfe saw loneliness as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Loneliness, he said, sucks the joy from life, leaving us empty, impotent, ruined, and lost.  Time seems to flow on without us, while we sit “drugged and fettered in the prison of loneliness.” 

One solution is found in religion.  Religious thinkers have plumbed the depths of solitude, retreating to monasteries and sitting in silence.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, explained that solitude opens an abyss within that points toward the infinite.  A different religious idea is offered by Dorothy Day who said that we overcome loneliness through service, community, and love.  She explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love.”   

This is a common refrain: to transform loneliness into love.  A poem from Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Finding”) provides a poignant example:

Out of the great darkness and wide wastes of silence,
Long loneliness, and slow untasted years,
Came a slow filling of the empty places,
A slow, sweet lighting of forgotten faces,
A smiling under tears.

Gilman reminds us that loneliness is what allows memory to unfold.  When alone we can enjoy the memory of those we’ve lost.  Later in the same poem, she explores how lost love opens onto a broader love:

Love like the rain that falls on just and unjust,
Love like the sunshine, measureless and free,
From each to all, from all to each, to live in;
And, in the world's glad love so gladly given,
Came heart's true love to me!

Here we get a sense of the strange productive power of solitude.  From out of loneliness grows the urge to communicate and to love. 

The highest human goods—art, religion, and philosophy—require solitude: a quiet and empty space in which the spirit can unfold.  Instead of allowing solitude to devolve into dreadful loneliness and succumbing to boredom, we must find ways to fill the emptiness with meaning, whether in exploring our memories or writing poetry.  This is also what scientists, entrepreneurs, bakers, and gardeners do: they create, build, and explore.  The aloneness of the creative soul is a pregnant at-one-ness, waiting to give birth to beauty, knowledge, and love. 

Singing the Blues in Difficult Times: Art and Creativity in the Pandemic

Fresno Bee, May 31, 2020

The pandemic has left people feeling numb, powerless, and hopeless. One recent article suggests that half of Americans have the blues. People are out of work and struggling to pay the rent. There is political animosity and racial tension.

Reopening things will get some folks back to work. But the economy is still a mess. Political nonsense continues to flow out of D.C. And a second wave of infections and shut-downs is waiting in the wings. We can’t go back to the carefree world we once knew.

This is a good time to turn to the blues, an art form full of nostalgia and despair. As John Lee Hooker sang, “Hard times are here to stay.” The world is out of joint. We dream of going home. But we can’t get there. So we sing.

Great songs, inspired novels, and new art will emerge from this crisis. Art grows from hard times.

The Great Depression gave birth to Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” for example. At one point in the story, poor folks chip in for a funeral for a child who died of malnourishment. Steinbeck then offers a simple prayer for the common man. “Pray God some day kind people won’t all be poor. Pray God some day a kid can eat.”

The Depression also inspired Langston Hughes’s dream of an America that didn’t exist. In the 1930s he wrote, “Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, we, the people, must redeem the land, the mines, the plants, the rivers … and make America again.”

These artists confronted the bleakness of their time with a kind of hope. Rather than weep and wail, artists turn suffering into song. And you don’t have to be a genius to participate in the magic of art. Everyone can make lemons into lemonade. The creative urge is deeply human.

Consider the surge in baking that occurred during quarantine. Stores ran short on flour and yeast. Bread nourishes the body. But there is therapy in the culinary arts. Mixing, kneading, and waiting give shape to bread — and to poetry and life.

Life is made meaningful by creative activities. Joy is found in sharing this with others, telling stories, singing, laughing, crying, and eating together.

We sing, bake, and build because of an upsurge of energy. A kind of spiritual leavening occurs in the active and inspired mind, as ideas and emotions ferment and overflow. The vitality of the mind impels it to create and to communicate.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that inspired spirits enrich the world out of their overflowing fullness. Art is the expression of will and energy. Suffering becomes meaningful when it is transformed into poetry, prayer and thought.

The blues tradition provides a great example. The blues grew out of the anguish of the African American experience. The novelist Ralph Ellison once explained that the blues express both the agony of life and a toughness of spirit. It offers no solutions or scapegoats. But it turns heartache into song. Ellison wrote, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it.”

When hard times become art, courage and resilience emerge. Langston Hughes described the blues as sadness hardened with laughter. This requires audacity and tenacity. There are tears and loss. But the artist responds with energy and gives birth to something new that is both melancholy and beautiful.

I don’t mean to suggest that everyone ought to become professional artists. Artists are going to be hard-pressed to make a living these days. But one cure for the pandemic blues is to find solace in creativity, whether baking, singing or writing.

Nor do I mean to say that art can solve our problems. We need scientists to find a vaccine. Economists must tackle unemployment. And psychologists are needed to treat clinical depression. Art does not solve problems. Rather, it helps us cope. Art kneads our pain and causes it to ferment and rise up. And somehow this transforms the deep and lowdown blues into food for the soul.