One Word: Solitude

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Some words I love because of the way they sound. The way they feel when I write them. Their playful ambiguities. Their spelling quirks.

Others I love mostly on account of what they mean to me.

“Solitude” is a word I love for many reasons – but mostly for its meaning.

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I love to be alone. With myself, with my thoughts, with my ongoing internal conversation. “Solitude” is a word that captures that pleasure.

Simply put, I enjoy my own company. Not always exclusively, of course. I love hanging out with friends. Preferably just one or two at a time – but hey, I can “party hearty” in large gatherings.

I teach classes large and small. Sometimes I speak to packed auditoriums. Although, come to think of it, few experiences are more solitary than being onstage before hundreds or thousands of people.

Solitude Is Not Enough

I’m a conversation junkie. For that purpose, the voice in my head isn’t enough. I need to shop in the marketplace of ideas, to barter for fresh insights, to clash over differing points of view. Email and social media are great for that, though they can’t – for me – replace personal interaction.

Despite all that, though, I also need solitude. Lots of it. Often. Sometimes for extended periods.

Without solitude, I go crazy.

Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote and recorded a hauntingly beautiful song called “I Have a Need for Solitude”. To me, most of her songs are hauntingly beautiful – but this one in particular. It speaks to my heart.

Whatever our feelings about this particular musician, I suspect most of us need occasional solitude.

That’s of course a matter of degree. Probably most people don’t require nearly as much “alone time” as I do. Perhaps that reflects my history as an only child, growing up in the countryside with few playmates and plenty of time. Survival demanded that I learn – and learn early – to like being alone.

Alone In a Crowd

Grenada, when Cheri and I were there, was crowded (like so much of the planet). Folks lived and worked in packed spaces. For many, physical privacy was a rare and precious luxury.

Even there, though, people found ways to “take space” by retreating into their own minds. Some did so via books and music; some, by meditating and daydreaming; others, by focusing so intently on their work that they shut out the “madding crowd”.

Solitude comes in many forms and flavors.

Do We Enjoy Thinking by Ourselves?

According to a study published in July 2014 by Science magazine, most people dislike the experience of being “lost in thought” or “alone with their own thoughts”.

I don’t buy it! That study, from where I stand, was badly designed and presented by its authors, then grossly distorted by most of the press (including the science press, which should know better).

The psychology researchers claimed that most people are so averse to sitting quietly and thinking that many – especially men – actually prefer jolts of electricity.

The New Yorker examines these dubious claims in an article (“Actually, People Still Like to Think”) by Ferris Jabr, published October 9, 2014. The study’s own empirical findings turn out to contradict its published description.

Here’s the story: University of Virginia psychologist Timothy Wilson and his team tested 409 college students, along with 61 other people, some from a church, some from a nearby farmer’s market. Subjects were asked to sit alone for six to 15 minutes in a windowless, mostly barren room, “entertaining themselves” only with their thoughts. Some other students were instructed to perform the same experiment at home.

They then were asked to rate this experience, on a scale of 0 to 9, according to how well they enjoyed it. While most gave mid-range rankings, a majority rated their experience as “somewhat enjoyable” or higher.

Let’s repeat that: Most test subjects reported enjoying being alone with their thoughts. This despite having been stuck in a room deliberately rigged to be as depressing as possible! Yet the press and the professor concluded that most people can’t stand being alone with their thoughts. Does that sound to you like a fair summary of actual findings?

It gets worse. In a further test, 42 students were hooked to a machine with which they could give themselves an electric shock, “unpleasant but not painful” and comparable to a static discharge. Otherwise the test was the same. Twelve of 18 men and six of 24 women gave themselves one to nine shocks, while one other man zapped himself 190 times.

This time, subjects on average rated their “thinking alone” experience slightly below the “somewhat enjoyable” midpoint. Still not bad, and hardly bad enough, it seems to me, to warrant the professor’s tweeted summary: “People prefer electric shock to thinking”.

The problem with these tests (aside from the team leader’s blatant bias toward a prefabricated outcome) is that they ignore how people think in the real world.

When we need to “get away and think”, we don’t seek out the most sterile, stultifying setting available. We look for pleasant surroundings that nourish and inspire us. We may sip tea, coffee, or another beverage. We may snack. We may pace the floor, take a long walk, pump iron, or do aerobics. Gardening, fishing, cooking, and music are just a few of the many activities through which we facilitate contemplation.

In addition to all the above, I find that light reading (maybe a thriller or sci-fi novel, especially one I’ve read before) helps me focus: I’ll think a while, read a page or two, think some more, alternating intense reflection with mindless entertainment.

Then there’s writing.

For me, writing is both the most deeply personal form of thinking and the most solitary. I can and do write in the presence of others, but even then I’m alone in a world all my own. (Harlan Ellison [I’ve read] once wrote for hours while seated in a store window, surrounded by onlookers.)

All things of this nature are classified by Wilson and his team as “distractions”. Their assumption is that you can’t combine them with being in your own head. I disagree!

Even the self-administered electric shocks strike me as compatible with introspection. Had I been a test subject, I’m pretty sure I’d have pressed the “zap” button a few times, just to find out how it felt. Maybe some tried it in order to relieve the monotony of their otherwise bleak enclosure. Since when do curiosity and experimentation negate deep thought?

Just to be clear – there are certain people who recoil from solitary introspection. I’ve known folks who loathe their own thoughts and will do anything to keep from being alone with them.

I just think such people constitute a tiny, tragic minority – one urgently in need of therapy. Most of us, in my view, aren’t like that: We’re fine, the UV psych experimenters notwithstanding.

It would be fun to keep sitting here by myself and chewing on these questions. Gotta run, though – it’s time to join my wife and dog for dinner while we watch TV! Do ponder this stuff for yourself; then get back to me.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


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