Voluntary Solitude

The very nature of the eremitical life involves voluntary solitude. There are many people who live in relative, or even absolute, solitude, but not from choice. The Hermit deliberately and intentionally chooses the solitary life. There is a long tradition of viewing voluntary solitude as somehow pathological – suggestive, perhaps, of agoraphobia or some other social phobia or of clinical depression. Indeed, there are some recent research papers specifically considering what might be called “hermit pathology”: for example, Boyd I, Rubin G, Wessely S. “Taking refuge from modernity: 21st century hermits” J R Soc Med. 2012 Dec;105(12):523-9. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2012.120060.

But is the intentional desire for solitude pathological? Amongst the currents of thought (indirectly and probably unconsciously) deriving from the eremitical tradition is that which reconsiders the value of solitude, and the nature of intentional solitude.

“According to the anthropologist Robert Sussman, humans evolved not as hunters – as we like to imagine – but as prey, easy meat for wild dogs, ¬crocodiles and hyenas. We became “social animals”, as biologists describe us, not to catch dinner, but to avoid ¬becoming it – out of fear, in other words. Perhaps that fear still marks us, and perhaps that’s why we still feel uneasy when there’s no one around to watch our backs….

Are people uncomfortable with solitude because they so rarely experience it, or do they so rarely experience it ¬because they are uncomfortable with it? What is clear is that most of us persist in equating aloneness with loneliness, and company with companionship, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary. “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” is how Henry David Thoreau put it after two years as the sole inhabitant of a house he had built in the Massachusetts woods. You’re never more alone than when you’re in a crowd. A cliché, perhaps, but most of us recognise the truth in it….

Like many loners, I don’t have that many friends, but the ones I do have, I value. I talk with them, eat with them, drink with them – all those things normal people do. Still, whenever I return home, it’s with relief that I shut the door on the world. It’s a fantastic place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

“The joys of solitude”
Phil Daoust “The Guardian”, Tuesday 2 February 2010

“The Buddha. Rene Descartes. Emily Dickinson. Greta Garbo. Bobby Fischer. J. D. Salinger: Loners, all—along with as many as 25 percent of the world’s population. Loners keep to themselves, and like it that way. Yet in the press, in films, in folklore, and nearly everywhere one looks, loners are tagged as losers and psychopaths, perverts and pity cases, ogres and mad bombers, elitists and wicked witches. Too often, loners buy into those messages and strive to change, making themselves miserable in the process by hiding their true nature—and hiding from it. Loners as a group deserve to be reassessed—to claim their rightful place, rather than be perceived as damaged goods that need to be “fixed.” In Party of One Anneli Rufus — a prize-winning, critically acclaimed writer with talent to burn — has crafted a morally urgent, historically compelling tour de force—a long-overdue argument in defense of the loner, then and now. Marshalling a polymath’s easy erudition to make her case, assembling evidence from every conceivable arena of culture as well as interviews with experts and loners worldwide and her own acutely calibrated analysis, Rufus rebuts the prevailing notion that aloneness is indistinguishable from loneliness, the fallacy that all of those who are alone don’t want to be, and wouldn’t be, if only they knew how.”

“Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto” by Anneli Rufus (2003)

““Solitude” was seminal in challenging the established belief that “interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness.” Indeed, most self-help literature still places relationships at the center of human existence. Lucid and lyrical, Storr’s book cites numerous examples of brilliant scholars and artists — from Beethoven and Kant to Anne Sexton and Beatrix Potter — to demonstrate that solitude ranks alongside relationships in its impact on an individual’s well-being and productivity, as well as on society’s progress and health. But solitary activity is essential not only for geniuses, says Storr; the average person, too, is enriched by spending time alone. For fifteen years, readers have found inspiration and renewal in Storr’s erudite, compassionate vision of human experience.”

“Solitude: A Return to the Self” by Anthony Storr (1988, 2005)

For six years, Lionel Fisher lived by himself on a remote Pacific Northwest beach, where he had ample time to reflect on how to use solitude to become a happier, more fulfilled person. In a writing style at once eloquent and down to earth, Fisher interweaves his own experiences with other people’s real-life stories to affirm the life-changing benefits of being alone.

“Celebrating Time Alone: Stories Of Splendid Solitude” by Lionel Fisher (2001)

The cause of all human trouble is our inability to sit quietly in our rooms alone, wrote the essayist Montaigne. A small number around the country who have chosen to live as hermits do just that, 24/7.

Hermits are those who choose to live alone in silence for religious reasons. They dwell on the fringes of the church, but contemporary hermits might live right in your neighborhood.
Catholic solitaries are one of two expressions of the religious life: the cenobitic — the monk or friar — and the eremitic. That eremetic life has a long tradition in the church, beginning with the desert saints of the second and third centuries. At one time, the Requiem Mass for the dead was said at the profession ceremony, then the hermit departed into the wilderness to live on bread, water or goat’s milk, never to be seen again.

Hermits still exist today and have adapted to new circumstances.

“Sacristans of Emptiness”
National Catholic Reporter | 2/26/2004 | Rich Heffern

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