I have not been truly alone often in my life. I was a semi-solitary child, and I loved roaming the meadow and woods behind my childhood home as much as I loved playing with the neighbors. My mother was somewhat protective and made sure I checked in often. I lived with my family until I went to college. There, I lived with roommates and, again, at home, until I got married. Since then, I’ve had a husband and two children to be accountable to—and for. In my professional life, I worked as a waitress, sold cosmetics and cooking tools, and taught school—all of which required other people to be present. I’ve had moments of solitude, to be sure, but not great stretches of time alone.
Only alone can I draw close enough to God to discover His secrets. --George Washington Carver
A Native American tradition of solitude, the vision quest, makes the assumption that one may come to know one’s purpose by being physically alone, reliant on no one else, clearing the mind and body, meditating, and being open to spiritual guidance. This guidance will benefit the whole community, even though it is personal and sacred to the individual.[i]
Catholics, Quakers, Buddhists, and Jews all have traditions mandating seclusion. Authors, artists, philosophers, and scientists realize that creativity, problem-solving, contemplation, and reverie thrive in privacy, prior to collaboration. Emerson[ii], Thoreau[iii], Hemingway[iv], and Dickinson[v] wrote about solitude. Picasso and Vermeer painted it. Michelangelo and Rodin sculpted it.
Three times I have been in situations where I considered myself truly solitary—accountable to myself rather than others and not being responsible for anyone else. Once, I was left behind from a family reunion to attend professional training. I had the house to myself for a week, which was illuminating. I could go where I chose, when I chose. I could eat what I wanted and sleep when I wanted. I discovered an inner peace I wasn’t sure I had.
Twice, I traveled to Paris for education: first, as a twenty year-old college student and, second, to receive French teacher training. In both instances, I went with groups, but didn’t know anyone before I registered.
On each trip, it took time before I felt comfortable being alone—walking the streets of Paris, riding the Metro, wandering a museum, on my own. However, when I was by myself, I had amazing experiences.
During my Study Abroad, at the end of a rare solitary afternoon, I walked to the Musée Grévin, the Paris wax museum. I planned to look at the unusual architecture and return to the pension. As I was standing in front, a handsome young Frenchman approached and asked if I was American. We talked for a minute, and he asked if I would go to the café with him to practice his English. I said I had to enter the museum for my class, assuming he would go away. He asked for my phone number, to meet another time. I collected a pen and paper from the lady at the entrance and wrote the first digits of the pension’s number, but made sure the last digit wasn’t correct. Then I paid my fee to the same lady, who gave me a dirty look, and went into the museum alone. I felt empowered that I had kept myself safe. And I actually enjoyed the museum more on my own.
Recently, I returned to France with four other French teachers and our professor. While there, I broke my ankle—which is another story altogether. Because I tired easily, I opted out of the shopping trip after class one day. Instead, I stopped at several places to take pictures and enjoy the uniqueness and beauties of the neighborhood. Since I was alone, I took my time, staying, resting, and leaving when I wanted. I lingered at the Place Stravinsky, the Église St-Merri, and the Tour St-Jacques. After I exited the Metro at Montrouge, two older women stopped me on the street, asking in French what I had done to my leg and then asking about our trip. I was able to speak to them in their own language and thank them for their concern. If I had been with the other teachers, I’m sure they would not have stopped and questioned me. I gained confidence as I explained myself in another language.
The hardest thing about doing the right thing for yourself is you usually have to do it alone. --Po Bronson, What Should I Do With My Life?
I took a sabbatical this year, a Western cultural tradition of solitude. I have used the time to be alone, slow down, and regroup. With children grown, and that portion of my life ending, I needed to redefine myself. Instead, I am rediscovering myself.
Ester Buchholz said, “Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives. It can teach us fortitude and the ability to satisfy our own needs. A restorer of energy, the stillness of alone experiences provides us with much-needed rest. It brings forth our longing to explore, our curiosity about the unknown, our will to be an individual, our hopes for freedom. Alonetime is fuel for life.”[vi]
I glory in my current solitude. I consider it a sacred quest. I am allowing myself to ponder, to create, and to grow. I am developing talents, nourishing mind and body, and discovering weaknesses and strengths. I will leave this self-imposed seclusion with a renewed vision of my life, stronger and wiser, able to benefit my community.
The Word comes not to the noisemakers but to those who are silent. --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
[i] http://native-americans-online.com/native-american-vision-quest.html, accessed January 26, 2017.
[ii] Society and Solitude.
[iv] The Old Man and the Sea, as one example.
[v] Poem 18
There is another Loneliness
That many die without -
Not want of friend occasions it
Or circumstances of Lot
But nature, sometimes, sometimes thought
And whoso it befall
Is richer than could be revealed
By mortal numeral
The Loneliness One dare not sound-
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size-
The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see-
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny-
The Horror not to be surveyed-
But skirted in the Dark-
With Consciousness suspended-
And Being under Lock-
I fear me this-is Loneliness-
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
[vi] Buchholz, Ester. “The Call of Solitude,” Psychology Today, January 1, 1998, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199801/the-call-solitude, accessed January 28, 2017.