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A word in defense of solitude

Freddie deBoer’s recent essay about the escapism built into much of online life is well worth your attention. When I was first drafting this post yesterday, I wrote that Freddie missed some important points. I’ve now re-read it a few times to ensure I wasn’t misreading him and I suspect he wouldn’t necessarily disagree with what I say below. So just take this post as a “yes, and…” to Freddie’s.

Freddie is entirely correct when he says that tech companies are designing their products to lure us away from self-knowledge and the necessary risk of being human. There is a fundamental challenge to being human and to avoid it is to miss a difficult and invaluable gift. He is also correct to encourage us to take the risk of actually engaging with real world human beings. Actual human relationships are important. On the other hand, they are not the sine qua non of humanity (more on that momentarily).

Two things I would add to Freddie’s essay:

  1. The value of relationship with the nonhuman world
  2. The value of solitude

On the first I’ll be brief—mostly because I’m attempting to learn it myself right now and I don’t have much to say beyond “try it for yourself.” I do know that when I go for too long without time in the woods or the garden, I can detect it in my mood. I become grouchy and more pessimistic. (More, I say. My baseline is always pessimistic.) But when I’m in contact with the nonhuman world, sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can feel the swirl of life around me. That brings me to clarity and peace. Freddie wants us to engage with actual life and the problem of being human. Engagement with the nonhuman world does this and more.

I’m mostly writing this, though, because I want to emphasize the value of solitude, without denigrating the beauty of relationships. In fact, not just the value of solitude as an occasional practice, but as a deliberate choice of life.

Peter France opens his book Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by asking why hermits through the ages have been seen as sources of insight into the problems of personal and social relationships when the hermits themselves deliberately live outside those relationships. Perhaps it is the case (it is definitely the case) that it is difficult to properly understand a situation in which one is immersed. The fish doesn’t know what water is.

It would seem, therefore, that not only are those who live outside typical human relationships healthy, but in some way contribute to the health of those of us who live within typical human relationships. It has become accepted wisdom that relationships are required for human flourishing. The tradition of hermits and monks and solitaries speaks otherwise.

But aren’t loners weird? Sometimes, sometimes not. And what is weird anyway? Nonconformity to social rules? Are we begging the question? In any case, there are plenty of weird people among the sociable humans I see around me.

Some people work better (work in every sense of the word) in solitude or semi-solitude. Now that bosses are wanting their employees back in their chairs at the office, the business press has so many opinions about the importance of human interaction for creativity and productivity. This ignores the reality of people like me who have actually worked much better (worked in every sense of the word) alone at home for the past three years.

And almost everyone would benefit from periods of solitude. “All of humanity’s problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” If we want to take Freddie’s sound advice to engage with the challenge of life, there is no better way than to sit quietly in a room alone. Relationships, in this way, can be just as numbing as the damn phones and social media.

Risk engaging with actual human beings, yes. Also, engage with the nonhuman world. Also, maybe some of us require less human interaction than others. (That’s okay. You’re no weirder than anyone else.) Also, almost all of us could do with more periods of solitude. The important point is that you engage with the challenge of life, in whatever way your nature requires.

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