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. 

Individual Conscience and the Common Good

When conscience and common good collide

Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015

There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health._55524133_friedrichwandererabovetheseaoffogoriginal

Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.

Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.

But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.

Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.

Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.

Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.

Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.

Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.

Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.

Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.

Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.

There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/06/4367159_fiala-on-ethics-when-conscience.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Gentle, rural Jesus

Gentle, rural Jesus had to face harsh urban reality

Fresno Bee, March 10, 2012

The region near the Sea of Galilee is lovely this time of year.  Wildflowers bloom on the hills.  The Jordan River begins here, flowing gently south toward the desert.  The tradition tells us that John baptized people here.  Perhaps John understood the joy of taking a dip in a mountain creek.

Jesus found his disciples here among the hill people and fishermen.  At some point after he swam with John in the Jordan, Jesus went to a hilltop above the Sea of Galilee, where he gave his Sermon on the Mount.  I stood on this rocky knoll the other day and watched the sun sink into the mists.  It was gently beautiful: a fitting place for a sermon about love.

Mark Twain came here once.  But he wasn’t impressed.  Twain thought the little lake of Galilee was “dismal and repellant” in comparison to the magnificence of our own Lake Tahoe.  He is right.  Nothing compares to Tahoe.  But there is something restful and reassuring about this modest lake, a welcome contrast to the tumult of Jerusalem and the severity of the desert below.

The version of Christianity that I prefer seems to come from the idyllic country of the Galilee.  This is the Christianity of river rats and fishermen—not the Christianity of priests and politicians. This is the Christianity of friendly food miracles: of turning water into wine and multiplying loaves and fishes.  While I doubt that these stories are true, there is value in the spirit of hospitality and generosity they inspire.

Similar values are found in the Sermon on the Mount and its predominantly gentle message.  The Galilean Jesus celebrates forgiveness and love, turns the other cheek, and loves his enemies.  There are worries about hellfire here, which point in another direction.  But in general Jesus suggests that we need to be more tolerant, merciful, and peaceful.

The idea that Jesus was a gentle soul in tune with nature has been described by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson thought that churches and catechisms obscured the truth of Christianity.  He suggested that Christianity is best understood, “from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds.”  What Jesus discovered, according to Emerson, is that nature is good and that we each possess the divine within us. Life does look good when you are floating on Tahoe or Galilee, when you take a dip in the Merced or the Jordan.

But Bible doesn’t leave it at that.  When Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the rural idealism of the Galilee comes into conflict with the political and religious hierarchies of church and state.  Political and religious authorities don’t like river rats and backwoods fishermen.  Such outsiders reject the rules and power plays of the city.  When these rustics go to town, they get into trouble.  Some of them get arrested and even killed.

The God of cities and temples is severe and wrathful, demanding obedience and sacrifice.  Jerusalem is a city of kings and priests, with a long history of religious violence.  It is not surprising that Jesus is killed in Jerusalem.  Wouldn’t Jesus have done better if he had stayed in the Galilee, swimming with John, fishing with Peter, and turning water into wine?  If only life were always and everywhere so easy.

But life is not easy everywhere.  As we drove to Galilee along the Jordan River from Jericho, we passed through impoverished Palestinian towns, we saw barbed wire and the new security wall.  We were hassled by the cops more than once.  Above the Galilee lies the contested Golan Heights and beyond that Syria, where children are being murdered by their own government.

The sweet and mild Jesus that Emerson dreamed of could not ignore the suffering of others.  It is nice to retreat from the city and enjoy a pleasant mountain holiday.  But poverty, injustice, and war make that impossible for most people.  The meek remain disinherited and there is no peace.  That may be why Jesus had to leave the hills and take his message to the halls of power.  Once you understand how easy it is to find peace, love, and joy among the wildflowers, you realize how wrong it is that so many of us are prevented from enjoying these simple blessings.

Reflecting on Sept 11

Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2011-09-10

Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.

This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.

All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.

Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.

For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.

As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.

We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.

There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.