A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella.
“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”
I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”
We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.
And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.“
But what’s the difference?
I looked online, checked the library, and talked to a few friends. A few patterns emerged. In general, solitude is associated with a willful separation from people. Something–art, religion, self-discovery, etc.–draws someone away, and although separation may be difficult, you find a certain joy or “glory” to it. Like Tillich notes.
Loneliness represents the feeling of being cut off, left out, or forgotten. Like that time in first grade when Ms. Suzy Q. Populaire had a party and you weren’t invited. You didn’t even like Suzy Q. Populaire. But somehow, it hurt.
And it should.
Modern neurology has started to delve into the compounds linked with love and attachment. Oxytocin and vasopressin are at the forefront. Oxytocin appears to relate with feelings of bonding, comfort, and calm. Vasopressin normally regulates water retention, but recent research also links it with mammalian bond pairing.
These brain chemicals drive us to connect, which can backfire when connections break down. For example, in people overcoming breakups, the brain processes the emotional pain like physical pain. The same parts activate. Being lonely can even make you sick by weakening your immune system.
This validates the evolutionary perspective that humans evolved group-making abilities for survival, like primates picking bugs out of a neighbor’s fur. Remember those images of “cavemen” killing mammoths from high school history?
Research like the famous Robbers Cave Experiment further validates these claims, adding that groups sometimes exclude. In the experiment, fifth graders lived in two separate camps at Robbers Cave, where they bonded apart. When researchers introduced the two groups together, the fifth-graders started name-calling and teasing the other group.
While artificial, the experiment shows how prevalent and potent our group drive is. Being in a group is biology, stitched into the way we’ve behaved as a species for thousands of years. We’re conscious of the boarders of groups, and when we can’t be in one, we feel lonely.
But what about solitude? Or that rugged Clint Eastwood character in A Fist Full of Dollars? What about the artist or the mystic trying to transcend the limits that “the group” imposes? What about the glory of solitude?
For that, the Romantics had a lot to say.
Romanticism percolated and expanded toward the end of the 18th Century, reaching its hight in the mid 1800s. They arose like impudent, precocious teens, throwing off the constraints imposed by “The Age of Reason” that dominated the seventeenth century: rationality, scientific inquiry, and systematic thought. Instead, the Romantics stressed emotion, personal freedom, nature, and imagination.
One of the most iconic figures from the period was George Gordon, better known as Lord Bryon (1788-1824). He invented the “Byronic hero,” a mysterious figure who shuns the comforts of society to wander the world in exile, brooding. As Lord Maculay put it, he’s “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.”
For example, Byron’s antihero in Childe’s Harold’s Pilgrimage wandered Europe, standing atop old battlefields, skulking through lonely streets, and loosing himself in nature. This “byronic hero” still finds copies in modern pop culture: lone, haunted heros like Batman; exiled wanderers like Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie” in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the nonconformist of teen movies.
We love rebels, and rebels tend to stand apart. But most rebels–Byron’s included–aren’t happy. We respect and value them precisely because they endure isolation with rugged reserve.
America has a particular penchant for the rugged individualist. Populated from people who left the society of the Old World for the New, with frontier pushed West by brave settlers in isolated homesteads, we capture our ethos with heroes like Wyatt Earp in the Wild West or with images of thrifty homemaking in Little House on the Prairie.
In the 19th century, some American-born Romantics called “Transcendentalists” did much to articulate these ideas. A hodgepodge of thinkers, writers, and reformers, the transcendentalists stressed the dignity of humanity and the presence of God in nature. One of the most well-known was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a minister-turned essayist, scholar, and speaker.
Emerson, like the other transcendentalists valued solitude, which for him also meant an escape from society. As he opens his essay “Nature,” “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.”
In one of his other famous essays “Self Reliance,” Emerson stresses that the individual must reject conformity and trust his own inner voice. As he says, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.”
Later on in the essay, he frames this notion of self reliance in agrarian terms:
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.”
For many, the image of a man tilling corn is as quintessentially “American” now as when Emerson first used it. We still pride this self reliance. It’s part of our heritage and continues to thrive. Generally we don’t like to bother people by calling them, and we can’t even comprehend an out-of-the-blue visit. When we get sick, we withdraw. According to the 2000 Census, one in four Americans lives alone. We like our space.
In themselves, these are not wrong, but individualism can have flaws.
For example, we often cloak our solitude in busyness. We’re “too busy” to keep connections or socialize, and when we’re not being busy, we feel ashamed. Our own reluctance to intrude further reduces connections. Sometimes, they break down. A 2004 survey from a Duke researcher found that the number of people who admitted to having no one close to confide in had tripled since 1985.
Moreover, narcissism seems to rise each year. According to a 2008 study, over two thirds of American college students scored above average on narcissism assessments, up from 30 percent in 1982.
Being that rugged individual can be more of an ideal that a reality.
So how can one find healthy solitude while escaping loneliness and narcissism? To me, the key lies back with Emerson and some of the early English Romantics.
We can trot out the Emersonian notion of self reliance as much as we want, but we must also remember that Emerson also believed transcendence. For him, one escapes society and builds self-reliance because this links one with something deeper. He often termed this depth the “over soul.” Finding this transcendence allows solitude to become connected and meaningful, centering it on a deeper truth, not our own desires.
In another example, the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge also stressed separation from society because this brings one closer to transcendence. In his poem “Frost at Midnight,” for example, Coleridge recalls his own loneliness as a schoolboy in London and contrasts it with the future he hopes his son will have in the country. As he says:
According to Coleridge, outside of London, in nature, one finds that transcendent force that links one to that “eternal language.” For Coleridge, a minister, that’s God speaking.
But we live in a world that differs from Emerson’s and Coleridge’s. Many do not actively seek after God. Fewer find the “over soul” in solitude. Many don’t believe anything transcendent.
But some things still move us as if they are transcendent. Certain places and people hit us with an unfathomable otherness. We find a new horizon that wasn’t there before, that goes beyond labels or categories. That lump in the throat, those pricked hairs on the neck, that sudden cessation of thought, and the awe that overwhelms us–that is the “feel” of transcendence.
I climbed Mt. Marcy and Mt. Skylight in the Adirondaks the summer before college. At the top of Skylight, I lay out, sheltered from the wind, and closed my eyes. As the warm mid-morning sun warmed my face, I fell into silence. No birds, no bugs, no wind. Suspended in a vacuum, my thoughts quieted and I fell beyond myself.
Wordsworth describes such moments when he recalls of the “gifts” from Tinturn Abby:
that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world, Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on,-- Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.
I think this is the ideal of solitude: that liberation and elevation that seems to lead beyond the bonds defined by society, beyond the vocabulary of self and other. We overcome the words that create “individuals” and hit something that feels “universal,” connecting to those around us, before us, and after us. Somehow, being alone becomes the closest connection we’ve ever felt before.