What good is solitude?

January 14, 2011

a new year, with new opportunities to banter around familiar clichés such as
"taking time on the journey," cultivating "spirituality but not religion" and
"going on retreat." Most of us agree that solitude is key to all of these
endeavors, and that solitude is a good thing.

like the above expressions, the concept of solitude could use some fresh air. We
tend to think we know what solitude is: it means leaving one's work for "time
away," right? And we're pretty sure that solitude means being alone: it can't
be experienced with anyone else, right?

Deresiewicz plays with these assumptions. Back in 2008, Deresiewicz wrote an essay for The American Scholar in which he says that "the ability to engage
in introspection. . . is the essential precondition for living an intellectual
life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude."

last spring Dersiewicz pressed on with his defense of solitude, this time naming it as
essential to leadership
(he was addressing plebes at West Point):

So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the
concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these
help you to know yourself better. But there's one more thing I'm going to
include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.
Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other
people. But I'm talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep
friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other
person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same
time while you hang out in a friend's room listening to music and studying.
That's what Emerson meant when he said that "the soul environs itself with
friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude."

In other words, we may find
the solitude we need in being alone on a retreat or in daily prayer. But we may
also find it by moving not away from but toward
a focused work. Likewise, we may find that an honest, uninterrupted talk with a
friend is a private, removed solitude that we've taken for granted. Here's to
solitude as we discover and cultivate it in 2011.


Friendship and Walking

I have found that long, leisurely walks with a close friend while talking often leave me as refreshed as a whole weekend in retreat. Speech and breathing naturally sync up with the rhythm of walking and your pace begins to track each other. Mix all of it together: Deep breathing, light exercise, the rhythm of speaking and listening, even the physical activity of 'moving forward'--it's a complete reboot of mind, body, and soul.

Solitude and retreat

Just like solitude, the concept of "retreat" can use further thought. I find it interesting that the main post draws from an address given at West Point. Retreat in a military setting involves pulling back or withdrawing, but there is much more to it than simply going away. No doubt retreat is a maneuver that avoids peril, but it also provides time and space to regroup, plan, and go forth again.

Group retreats provide an opportunity for shared solitude. As counterintuitive as it may sound, our own solitude can take on richer dimensions when it is shared with another. For example, "alone" on a prayer path, two disciples pass, one going and one returning. Their eyes meet, they share a smile, and each moves on uplifted and encouraged. It really happens. It really lasts.

Be one of those disciples this year. Follow the path. Be a blessing, and be blessed.