Making a case for solitude

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Is it just me, or would everyone suffer from a mild panic attack if one of their friends were to disappear from their gChat list for several days without explanation? I recently experimented with blocking a contact from my list and was both amazed and terrified at how quickly that person ceased to exist in my reality. Another friend of mine explained that her company had allowed its employees to use instant messaging programs at work up until last year; suddenly blocked from seeing which friends/acquaintances were online at any given time, she felt isolated and anxious.

In our day and age, connectivity enabled by technology (whether via cell phones, email, instant messaging, etc.) is so widespread that to remove oneself from that network feels unusual and often uncomfortable, especially for the generation of kids who have never known communication without the Internet. In his article titled "The End of Solitude," published in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, William Deresiewicz explores the benefits of solitude and warns against its obsolescence.

He observes that, in our present age, visibility "is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility. So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude."

What benefits does solitude provide? The impetus for and concept of solitude has changed throughout history. During the Romantic period, the practice of solitude is seen as critical to achieving sincerity: "the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others." In modernist society, solitude was seen as a refuge from the city and the masses. "But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. "

But Deresiewicz distinguishes between loneliness and solitude: loneliness is the negative experience of solitude, or the state of being alone with oneself. As with all things with which we are unfamiliar, "the less are we able to deal with [solitude] the more terrifying it gets."

What we lose by losing solitude is, "first, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness." He argues that "no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude" but admits that "Solitude isn't easy, and isn't for everyone." It's can be both impolite and unpopular.

What place does solitude have in our current society? Do you agree with Deresiewicz's position on the value of solitude? To me, I see the practice of design as an apt metaphor: we need to strike a balance between collaboration and teamwork, and individual focus and intuition, to create great work. In the same way, everyone can participate more successfully and authentically in a visible world if they periodically withdraw to re-examine who they are and what they want from it.

As a final thought, and to play Devil's Advocate: Do these same philosophies and values apply to more interdependent cultures, such as in Latin America and Asia? An American friend living in China once suggested that, whereas Americans will crave the solitude of hiking in wilderness areas far away from any sign of civilization, the Chinese appear to have no such desire. Most of the remote trails he took while hiking through national parks in Western China inevitably led him to incredible vista points that turned out to be fully accessible by tour bus, where his walking meditation would be interrupted as groups of Asian tourists descended to take photos before traveling on to the next lookout. Could our estrangement from solitude as a result of connectivity shape American/Western culture to become more interdependent?

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