Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On being alone

A few days ago, my brother sent me the transcript of a speech delivered to the cadets at West Point by William Deresiewicz, an old and somewhat crusty book critic who likes to flip the occasional metaphorical bird at the literary establishment. It's an interesting, if somewhat rambling discourse, with the gist being that true leadership requires (among other things) introspection, focused concentration, sustained reading, and friendship of the meaningful conversations kind.  All of these activities he says are related to solitude, which is not so much being alone as being able to be present within oneself.* He reserves a few of his tastiest jabs for those who seem to confuse leadership with ambition.

As I get older I run across more people who are semi-permanently on their own. A few are widows, more are divorced, and some just never really managed to pair up for whatever reason. Some have kids at home. A few have parents living with them, or requiring daily care. But one thing they practically all share is a sort of apartness, a combined self-reliance, independence, and seeming ability to live a little more in the moment than those of us who are more permanently entangled.

Perhaps one of the reasons that I have almost always enjoyed being alone is that those are some of my favorite personal traits. I mean, I love people, and no one is more ready to pile a bunch of people into his house or dance stupid in a bar than this guy. But I also like it when the people go away for a while. My favorite days at work are the ones I spend alone in my lab, and the only people I talk to are the baristas at the coffee bar in the bookstore.

I especially like solitude in nature. I can spend hours sitting by a creek or on top of a bluff, studying the infinite variety of trees, leaves, and rocks, listening to the wind and watching the little animals do their little animal things. If you put me somewhere I can hike, I will keep going out until I am too sore to walk. And maybe a short walk after that.

One exception to this love affair with myself occurred immediately after my first marriage split up. I kept finding myself in my crappy little apartment full of hand me down furniture, increasingly desperate to talk to someone on the phone, or to go somewhere that other people would be. They didn't have this fancy Internet thing back then, so there was no YouTube or Facebook to keep me company. Besides, the ex took the computer, so I couldn't even go on Prodigy® and do whatever you were supposed to do on Prodigy®.

I can still remember the moment -- it was a Sunday evening about three weeks after I moved into the apartment -- when I reached for the phone and thought, "Wait. If you are sitting alone and you can't stand the company, then something is terribly wrong." I put the phone down and started working on my self. I only made it a couple of hours that night, but it got better over time.

Someone said once that love is the uncomfortable realization that there is someone in the world besides oneself who is really real. I think it's also the process of surrendering the apartness. Some people think you're not really in love until two people have more or less completely fused to share one life. Many of the more experienced** people I know are a little more circumspect, and generally try to find a balance between "me" and "us".

In the end, that's something that each of us has to decide for ourselves. Which of course, requires solitude.

*I may have added that last part.

** I mean old, not slutty. Not that the two are mutually exclusive.

1 comment:

  1. there are about a thousand things i like about this post... but among them "to be present within oneself" and that love is "the process of surrendering the apartness".

    i think i'm about halfway there... for now? i've got a great dog.