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. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.
–excerpt from “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
A recent conversation with a friend sent me digging through the archives to locate a brief essay I wrote years ago entitled, “Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone,” which was part of an ongoing debate about the merits of solitude, which exist independently of the benefits of healthy regular relationships with others. Since I have been writing about solitude in recent postings, I thought my readers might enjoy this brief look back at, what was then, an earnest attempt to make a case for cohabitation:
“Why It Is Not A Good Idea To Live Alone”
Everything that lives, lives not alone, nor for itself.” –William Blake
Virtually all common human activities have some social aspect in that people generally engage in them together, rather than alone, and mutually influence one another. Throughout human history, in nearly every civilization, the overwhelmingly dominant characteristic arrangement of our species has been found in the many varieties of living together.
The family unit, however loosely arranged or tenuously held together, is the foundation of life among most living creatures on our planet, and the building block of civilized society. Early humans, not restricted by social convention or modern ethical and sociological considerations still instinctively lived together in social groups for protection and survival. Due to the dangers inherent in the world of predatory dominance, a person living alone was virtually non-existent in those ancient epochs. As the human species evolved, with the advent of agriculture and the subsequent development of communities, humans became more diverse in their social arrangements and the nuclear family eventually emerged as the dominant social unit.
Around the third century A.D., the first indications of the eremitic life were discovered in Egypt. From the Greek word, “eremites,” meaning “living in the desert,” the word “hermit” is derived. Known in many cultures, the hermit generally adopts a solitary life out of an impulse to pray or to do penance.
In the fourth century, the eremitic life became known in Western Europe. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common experience of religious duties, gradually these hermits formed groups of disciples under a particular spiritual leader. Thus, even the extreme eremitic life eventually gave way to the less rigorous community life that was the basis for monasticism. The early hermits who formed these communities had a group of separate cells called “laura,” to which they could retire after discharging the common life duties, combining the communal with personal solitude.
In modern society, there is a much heralded emphasis on the individual, and a much more flexible attitude toward unorthodox lifestyle choices, resulting in a variety of societal living arrangements. Despite this increased freedom of choice and available options, human evolution has not yet progressed to the point where we do not require close personal relationships that are developed during cohabitation.
The late Leo Buscaglia, Ph. D., former associate professor of education at the University of Southern California, and well-known author of “Loving Each Other,” asserts the vitally important role of relationships:
“Human survival is dependent upon healthy relating. The complex ongoing process of people interacting with others in harmony through each stage of life is the highest and most demanding form of human behavior. As we mature, we become more deeply aware of the devastating effects arising from aloneness.”
Instinctively, we seek out others, even though modern society tells us that strength lies in independence.
Dr. Buscaglia says, “We see ‘need’ as immature, and ‘dependence’ as weakness. We fear commitment in that it may destroy our individuality and our much coveted freedom. In so feeling, we build self-imposed barriers to genuine encounter and the deep unions we so desperately seek.”
It can also be said that while living alone can be challenging, enlightening, and even joyful, humans are by nature social beings. With each close relationship to another person, we are brought closer to ourselves. Without these close ties to other human beings, our development is seriously hindered. Recent studies by a variety of behavioral experts indicate, “…a positive correlation between human concern and togetherness, and human growth and development.”
There is no question that solitude and time to one’s self is vitally important to a balanced individual life, but the prospect of living alone for extended periods and avoiding intimate, long term association with other humans can only be a limiting and potentially harmful lifestyle.
Clearly, it is possible to live alone and to flourish, assuming some form of regular attention to maintaining and developing friendships, and at least some form of interaction with others outside of the home. It is quite another matter, to achieve a balanced life, without some exposure to both close relationships and to opportunities for solitude.
I once wrote about my appreciation for the opportunity to experience solitude, since it forced me to contemplate the importance of a particular memory, which might otherwise have escaped notice:
“I remember hearing the seagulls. Perhaps the natural spring was in a mountain near a beach. There was no other sound aside from the water, the birds, and the music in my soul. With eyes closed, the memory of the experience was fully engaged. It was a moment of repose, of silence, of solitude, forcing me to contemplate a memory of a feeling. I cannot completely or precisely replicate them. They only rise up within me in my solitude. In spite of the difference in time and possibilities, the unknown, the uncertain, the vague, all of it comes together in a moment of solitude. “
Gazing upon someone we love, and sharing the special closeness that can only come from such connections, creates a lovely memory of the experience when it happens. The memory of that experience holds particular pleasure because those aspects which we hold on to, those which mean the most to us, are the parts that we remember. And there are lots of parts–tender embraces and loving glances, but also heartaches and tears, and even profound sadness sometimes. We tend not to want to remember the difficult parts in these special relationships, because they take away from the feelings of joy and fulfillment that we associate with them. Integrating all the different aspects of our lifetime of memories takes time, and requires dedicating deliberate effort in quiet contemplation.
Even as a younger person, who was essentially on his own, I still never felt alone, at least, not in the way that I do now. I think because I am older now, I feel this aloneness more profoundly, while still recognizing and acknowledging the unity of everything that lives. The feeling combined with this recognition suggests the dual nature of all aspects of life, especially to be alone, but also to be one with all life simultaneously. It is a gift. It is a consequence of our humanity–a temporal manifestation of the infinite, the spiritual, and the ineffable. It is a paradox to know for certain that there is unity among all people, all creatures, all parts of the universe, and to feel so desperately, profoundly alone simultaneously.
Walking alone down the street, I am, all at once, completely unified with everything I see and feel and sense, in every way, and yet, distinctly alone, individual, apart. The differences between myself and other living entities is a signal that there is a variety and a number of differences in the way that consciousness manifests in the world. If you go down deep, and when we say “go in deep” or “go inward” we mean not temporally, but spiritually within us–when we do that–it emphasizes both our unification with all life and our inner separateness from it, and the simultaneous recognition of both becomes clearer when we withdraw within.
Here’s to the hope for all those who wish to find a connection to the path that leads away from being alone, that they will find that path, and truly flourish and grow into a fullness of life underway.