Happiness and Wisdom Through Solitary Living

“The Financial Times” [January 3, 2009] provided an excellent review essay by Susan Elderkin of three books exploring solitude and silence.
solitude book
Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes
By Robert Kull
New World Library £16.99, 354 pages
Book of Silence
A Book of Silence
By Sarah Maitland
Granta £17.99, 309 pages
Loneliness as a Way of Life
By Thomas Dumm
Harvard University Press, £15.95, 193 pages

“Literature is full of examples of the beneficial influence of getting away from it all. Twenty-eight years on a desert island did Robinson Crusoe the world of good: he became more resourceful, overcame his initial despair to provide himself with all the necessary means for survival, found God and improved himself morally. Crusoe is fiction (though probably based on actual castaway Alexander Selkirk) but there is also no shortage of non-fiction accounts of happiness and wisdom earned through solitary living. Henry Thoreau’s Walden is perhaps the most famous, but think also of the lonely silences of the deep explored so blissfully by the diver Jacques Cousteau (described in his 1953 autobiography, The Silent World) or Wordsworth’s transcendental solitary ramblings in The Prelude. Some writers would have us believe that there is a certain type of experience – a heightened sense of being alive – which it is only possible to have when one is alone.

Despite this, spending a lot of time alone is generally considered a bad thing in the west. With its emphasis on relationships and community, our society is traditionally suspicious of the one who sets him or herself apart. It’s hardly surprising that most of us go to great lengths to keep ourselves busy when we have to be alone, and to surround ourselves with people whenever possible. Noise, distraction, belonging, the sense of being companioned – these are the things which make humans feel happy. Not silence, aloneness, and nothing in particular to do.

Is the transformative power of solitude available only to visionaries and castaways? Or should we all make an effort to seek out silence and solitude, at some point in our lives, in order to live life to the full? How can it be that being alone is a positive experience for some, and pure torment for others? A batch of recent books tackle these questions as they explore the positive and negative effects of being alone.”…

“Usefully, Dumm provides a distinction between loneliness and solitude. “In solitude, we are each of us by our self, but not yet alone, because we are more or less happily occupied with our self, beside our self in a positive way”; whereas loneliness becomes a “monologue of desolation” in which we lose not only other people, but “a sense of ourselves”.
Dumm believes that loneliness is intrinsic to human life – indeed, something that has permeated contemporary existence like a disease. Dumm’s plea is for us to see our loneliness clearly, and for what it is, so that we may “if not escape its most powerful strictures, then at least begin to renegotiate the terms of our confinement”. Presumably this begins by accepting and not fearing the state of being alone. Without fear, might loneliness be transformed into its positive sibling, solitude?

Certainly one can take encouragement from the fearless Sara Maitland, striding about her silent moor, professing only ever to miss the company of another when attempting to put on a double duvet cover. It is reassuring too to note that, despite their extensive immersions in solitude, neither Kull nor Maitland ever feel like they are going mad – though both admit to hearing voices. If the overall testimony of these writers is anything to go by, it seems it might be worthwhile peeling off from the group now and again and spending a moment alone with the stars.”

Susan Elderkin is author of “The Voices”(HarperPerennial)

For Robert Kull, see http://www.bobkull.org/ For “The Value of Solitude” by Kull, see http://www.creationsmagazine.com/articles/C124/Kull.html
For Sarah Maitland, see http://www.saramaitland.com/Silence.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sara_Maitland and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-1081198/Quiet-Author-Sara-Maitlands-search-silence.html For a further review of her book, see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/15/book-silence-sara-maitland-review
For Robert Dumm, see http://www.believermag.com/issues/200901/?read=interview_dumm and http://rorotoko.com/interview/20081216_dumm_thomas_on_loneliness_as_a_way_of_life/

For a further review of Dumm’s book, see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/BOOK_20090213_1.htm

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