"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, November 25, 2013


BBC World service aired an interesting program on solitude with interviews on people who had either chosen a life of solitude or had suffered enforced solitary confinement. Those who were involuntarily shut off from all human contact found the isolation intolerable and maddening.  Even torture at the hands of a captor was better than spending weeks in a cold, airless, dark cell with not even a sight of a human face.

Voluntary recluses felt that that their solitary life was centering, spiritual, and purifying.  It let them focus on what to them was the only reason for living – an eventual understanding of the purpose or non-purpose of life and their place within the scheme of things.

This idea is not new.  Religious hermits, wandering ascetics, sadhus in Himalayan caves, and monks in spare monasteries all have sought inner enlightenment through solitude.  There is an excellent documentary called Into Great Silence which follows a group of monks who follow a strict regime and absolute adherence to a code of silence. The spend some time together, but most days are spent in solitary prayer or contemplation.  Even when they are together, however, they are silent.  Silence is the most austere form of solitude, and for them congregation is simply a collection of many individual silences.

The film gives a unique insight into the lives of these men.  It was made without commentary or any voice-over whatsoever, and the viewer can vicariously live a monk’s life. More than anything, the viewer feels the peace of the monks and the monastery.  It is austere but not intimidating. 

One voluntary recluse admitted that there were limits to her solitary life.  Six weeks of solitude without any form of connection with the outside world – no people, TV, Internet, or radio – was all she could tolerate. Even for the most committed there are limits.  The pain and torture of solitary confinement must be hell.

Angola (Louisiana) Prison is a maximum security facility in which some prisoners face years if not decades of solitary confinement.  Herman Wallace who spent 41 years in solitary at Angola is perhaps the best known.  In a prison like Angola where most inmates have been convicted of and incarcerated for violent assault and murder, and many are serving multiple life terms, traditional morality disappears.  A murder within the prison means nothing. Additional life terms mean nothing.  Only the hole – a pestilential solitary confinement – can possibly act to maintain a modicum of order and discipline.

Like any other human activity, there is a range of solitude – the hermit on one end to the insatiably social on the other. The hermit retreats further into his cave at even a hint of human contact while the socialite cannot imagine doing anything with fewer than 100 of her closest friends.  Most of us fall somewhere in between. Few of us enjoy being alone for extended periods, but most are glad for the chance to be on our own every so often.

Solitude is cultural. Anyone born into an extended family culture like India is unlikely to ever have any solitude. There is no respite from screechy wives, hectoring, harridan mothers-in-law; nor from the din of thousands of rickshaws, bus horns, dudh-wallahs, cow bells, hawkers, angry husbands, and wailing children. A man had to leave Rio because he couldn’t stand the constant, infernal noise of the streets.

Not surprisingly, anyone growing up in urban Rio, Lagos, or Bombay feels lonely and desperately alone in cities like Zurich or Oslo.  They miss the totally social and public life of home.  They miss the noise, the tangle of animals, cars, and people; and are stifled by the rigid and inescapable rules and regulations which keep people apart. 

There are those who travel alone extensively - travelers who know no one in the cities where they worked, and spend hours alone after work and on weekends.  Many are at first uncomfortable with the solitude, but gradually become accustomed to being alone and in fact enjoy it.  They find themselves nobody’s father, husband, brother, or son. They leave responsibility and duty behind. They are accountable to no one, free to come and go, happy to spend hours or days alone wandering the streets of a new city, reading, sitting on the beach, or having a civilized lunch.  For them solitude is liberating. Since these travelers are no longer defined by anyone and become unaccountable foreigners in a foreign land, they are free.. Privileged observers, free from reflection.  Eye-cameras.
A traveler's solitude takes many forms.  Alone in crowded bazaars and restaurants, on the beach, on the verandas of old teak-and-mahogany bungalows, at government rest houses, or in the lobby of grand hotels. 

Once these international travelers retire and their exotic travel days are over, they find that they still need solitude and always manage to get away for months at a time. In unfamiliar surroundings I can rediscover that particular heightened perception that comes with being in a different place.

Few people who have learned to appreciate solitude have never considered joining a monastery, an Indian ashram, or a Himalayan temple. That kind of solitude – austere, restrictive, and ascetic – is not for everyone.

‘Getting away from it all’ is a very American thing to do.  Who among us has not taken the car and driven aimlessly to change perspective in a temporary, short fugue to relieve the tedium of home, to calm down, cool down, and regain equilibrium?

Few people, however, spend longer periods alone. A solitary vacation is tantamount to abandonment  Marriage is all about togetherness, sharing, and compatibility; so what does a three-week trip alone say? In most cases, it is an anodyne for marital disputes; the perfect medication for over-familiarity, narrow emotional quarters, and quarrels.  All without side effects. Yet few people take it.

Solitude becomes more important as one gets older. When all is said and done, no one else matters but you. As Ivan Ilyich says in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, we all die alone.  Before the reality of the imminent end of life sets in, there may be moments of solicitude, expressed love for family and friends, and moments of deep regret at forthcoming loss; but one’s final lucid days and hours are not spent in reminiscence but solitary contemplation at the one incomprehensible, unimaginable event of life. It is natural, therefore, for older people to begin to clean the social closet.  Why invite the Smiths? Or the Joneses? 

Being solitary is not being lonely.  Far from it. If man is a social animal, he is even more a solitary one; for serious, solitary contemplation is what distinguishes us from cows and lizards.

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