An Ode to Solitude

Once in a while it’s refreshing, restorative … and essential … to spend some time with just yourself.

September 2018

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

We’re social animals. Yet the need to get away is ancient and universal.

When English poet George Gordon Byron wrote the passages below, the crowded streets of London and the clanging and clattering of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution were no doubt the stresses from which he sought refuge in nature.

We have additional stresses today. The relentless pelting of never-ending news cycles. Long-standing disputes among nations now louder and shriller on a world stage shrunken by technology. Electronic leashes making the instant reply the expected standard. A coarser pitch to public discourse, in the village square and the halls of government. The sheer frenetic pace of life in the 21st century.

In Lord Byron’s day, early in the 19th century, news traveled at a speed the eye could follow and the mind could comprehend. A speed measured by the waves slapping a ship’s hull as it plowed through the ocean. By the clip-clop of a horse- drawn carriage. By the pace of a postman’s walk. News of the day was often days, sometimes weeks, occasionally months old.

Attention spans were longer. For those fortunate enough to have an education, strong reading skills and the ability to practice them for hours were essential to keeping up with the latest in politics, science, travel, arts, religion. Work was more tedious and difficult, for sure. But without all of our 21st-century diversions, there was also time to reflect on what you had read … to think more deeply about it … to exchange thoughts on it with family and friends.

Albert Einstein famously said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Einstein’s rich imagination, of course, is responsible for one of his signature scientific achievements, the theory of general relativity. And his rich imagination was fed by spending time alone, deep in thought.

Granted, the history of humankind has seen only a handful of Einsteins. And few sessions of solitude will result in a scientific theory that changes both our understanding and our view of the universe. But let’s face it, all of us can benefit from spending a little time away from what Thomas Hardy called “the madding crowd.”

So … what defines a thinking spot, besides solitude? Well, pretty much whatever excites your imagination … or soothes your soul. It could be a comfy armchair in a quiet room. A grassy spot under the canopy of an ancient maple tree. A johnboat floating downstream on a slow current. A padded pew in an empty church. An Adirondack chair on the back deck. The seat of a tractor. The top of a mountain. The end of a dock at the end of the day.

In a world awash with stress points, it’s refreshing, restorative, indeed essential, to spend some time with just yourself. Surrounded by solitude. Alone.

Being alone and being lonely, of course, are not the same thing. Without distractions, we can think more deeply and fully about things. Take stock of where we are in our relationships — with family, friends, work colleagues. Deepen our spiritual life. Map out our plans for tomorrow. Our hopes for the future.

Poet Lord Byron and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer were two of the great thinkers of the 19th century. Schopenhauer wrote, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”

Consider giving yourself the wonderful gift of blessed solitude. You’ll find it both free …and freeing.