“Genius develops in quiet places, character out in the full current of human life.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I work best in quiet places, particularly if I am writing or doing creative work. People, noise, social media, and often even music are distractions that keep me from focusing the way I need to in order to dig deep enough to find what I am trying to say or to create. So while I have long recognized the value of relationships and human contact for emotional health, I have focused on increasing the degree of solitude when it comes to my creative life.
Building in more opportunities for solitude has indeed helped, and it gives me the space and energy I need in order to increase my creative work. I’ve seen positive results from this approach over the last few months, but I’m also realizing the picture is incomplete.
My mother tells the story of the time when I came to her as a small child with an important question: “Mommy, why does God bother us all the time?”
As you can imagine, this question puzzled her, so she asked me where I’d gotten the idea that God bothers us. It turns out that we had sung the hymn “Never Alone” the previous week in church. The chorus of this song includes the words, “No, never alone! No, never alone! He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.” And I knew from experience that when my little brother never left me alone, that meant that he was bothering me!
“Still, in spite of all the civilization and people around me, I find it amazingly easy to reach a transcendent state of aloneness, as if the years of solitude at the cabin were so intense they laid a well-worn path of synapses and relays in my brain, providing a familiar shortcut.” ~Sean Gardner (as quoted by Lionel Fisher)
Over the summer, I had the chance to read Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude by Lionel Fisher. In this book, Fisher weaves together his own story of time spent in intense solitude with the stories of many people that he interviewed who had chosen similar periods of aloneness to explore the many aspects of solitude.
He shares the stories of a wide range of people, coming from many backgrounds and circumstances. Some chose solitude intentionally and structured their lives in ways to give them that time away. Others had periods of solitude thrust upon them through the death of a loved one or the loss of a significant relationship. The situations defining their solitude varied widely, but each person found solitude to be a life-changing experience.
It was during a slow day at work late in the Spring when I found this book on my boss’s shelf. We shared an office at the time, and she had encouraged me to read her books when I had nothing else to do. (What can I say? I have a really awesome boss!) With my love for silence, the title, Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality, immediately caught my eye. When I realized that the author, J. Brent Bill, was a friend of hers and someone to whom she had once introduced me at a business meeting, I decided it looked like an interesting way to pass my time until she returned from an off-site meeting.
Interesting is not quite the right word this book. Absorbing might be a little closer. I don’t think I got another useful thing done that afternoon, and the first thing I did when she arrived in the office later that day was to ask for permission to take it home with me. I finished it the next day.
Life can be so ironic sometimes. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted and wanted and wanted something so badly, and it hasn’t happened. Then as soon as my desires change and I no longer want it anymore, it appears. The universe clearly has a sense of humor, it seems.
My latest example of this ironic twist in action has to do with my social life. I have not had much of a social life or very many friends since I graduated from high school. For various reasons, I was an outsider in college and graduate school, which limited my friendship options. My working life has generally yielded work-based friendships that did not often result in spending much time with people outside of the office. For years, I pined and pined for a more active social life and friends to do things with outside of work, but it never materialized the way I had hoped.
Because I also lived alone, this meant I spent a lot of my time by myself. As an introvert, I dealt with this just fine, but I had a deep-seated belief that I’d be happier and more fulfilled if I could just break into the social scene.
As I’ve gone through so much change in the last few years, I’ve spent even more time alone even when I was living with other people in the house. I went back to my wishing and hoping to create more friendships and have a more active social life. I was sure that having more friends would make me happier. After all, isn’t that what the research says?
“I need to be silent / for a while, / worlds are forming / in my heart.” ~Meister Eckhart, excerpt translated by Daniel Ladinsky
I’ve had almost two weeks off work (including some work from home time in there), and I’ve been fortunate enough to spend this time mostly at home alone. Mostly in silence. I’ve even cut back drastically on my electronic communication during this time away.
I don’t know anyone else who be able to stand as much silence and solitude as I’ve had during this time, but I have reveled in every moment of it. My only complaint is that it is ending so soon. I could use several months more of this kind of extended silence.
“Alone, even doing nothing, you do not waste your time. You do, almost always, in company. No encounter with yourself can be altogether sterile: Something necessarily emerges, even if only the hope of some day meeting yourself again.” ~Emil Cioran
I have had the glorious opportunity to spend the last two days completely alone. I’ve had a few short phone conversations and some online exchanges of various kinds (text messages, emails, instant messages, Facebook conversations), but I have not actually been in the company of another person for two days. And it’s been good.
Some of this time alone was due to canceled plans because I wasn’t feeling well. All of the time alone was entirely by my own choice and was quite fruitful. I had a lot of processing to do, and I think I’ve made some real progress in several areas during this time.
To most people, this time would look remarkably unproductive. I’ve managed to complete only a few household chores. I haven’t run any of the errands I needed to run. I did get a few things done for my business (including booking a client – yay!). But for having had two full days at home, it doesn’t look like there’s much that’s been accomplished. I even spent most of that time away from the computer!