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Saving Solitude

“I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light…”

–from “Acquainted with the Night”
by Robert Frost

As a young boy, I treasured solitude. I enjoyed long walks through the neighborhoods of my hometown in the depths of the night, not another soul to be seen beneath the soft glow of the streetlights. I kept to the side streets and shadows, peacefully alone with my thoughts. On most nights I would walk to the hill that overlooked my high school on the edge of town, nestle down in the tall grasses that waved in the night breezes, and stare up at the stars, contemplating my past, my future, and my place in the universe. Where many people cherish memories of fun times spent with others, my most revered memories come from times spent alone in deep and silent contemplation of ideas that mattered to me. Solitude was sacred.

Don’t misunderstand me. I was no hermit or recluse, just an introvert whose batteries needed time alone to recharge. Adolescence was a tough time for me (as it is for most, I think) as few of my peers could identify with my need for solitude. Though most of the acquaintances I had (I stop short of calling them friends) did not understand that need, they certainly respected it. I spent more than my share of Friday and Saturday nights at home or out walking; if there was a party or something going on, no one troubled themselves to let me know about it, as they knew I would likely prefer not to be there anyway. They were right.

I had no patience for the angst and drama that has permeated the social world of the teenager from time immemorial. Ironically, I pursued a career as a high school teacher, and am surrounded by that angst and drama every day, ad infinitum. That’s okay. I work to help them keep things in perspective and realize that those around them whose acceptance they are trying so hard to acquire will be gone from their lives soon enough, and that the only one they have to impress is the one looking back at them in the mirror. That’s the one whose acceptance they will need to sustain over the long haul. Unfortunately, I see today a phenomenon arising among the youth of this country that threatens that capacity for self-acceptance: they are terrified of solitude, and now have the tools to help them never experience it.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Why shouldn’t our children be outgoing extroverts rather than quiet, reserved introverts like I used to be (and to some extent still am)? After all, in this country don’t the extroverts have greater success? Is that not the preferred personality type in our competitive and hyper-social society? I see nothing at all wrong with being an extroverted, enthusiastic participant in the conversations we need to have. What I fear is what I see beginning to take shape: an inability of children to handle actual solitude, and a vehement refusal to even try to do so.

Every day, I am surrounded by secondary-level students who spend the majority of their time staring at a screen and engaging in superficial connection with peers on various social media platforms. “Connection” is possible 24/7. Their attention spans are eroding to the point where asking them to engage in sustained reading of complex content or to critically analyze source material are almost exercises in futility. They are also losing the capacity, due to the technological takeover of their social and intellectual lives, to think critically, grapple with more subtle ideas, talk to one another in real time, and experience empathy for those around them. Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, puts it this way: “We are being silenced by our technologies—in a way, ‘cured of talking.’ These silences—often in the presence of our children—have led to a crisis of empathy that has diminished us at home, at work, and in public life” (Turkle 9). She continues, expressing our need for solitude in today’s ever-advancing technological society:

Solitude reinforces a secure sense of self, and with that, the capacity for empathy. Then, conversation with others provides rich material for self-reflection. Just as alone we prepare to talk together, together we learn how to engage in more productive solitude…Recent research shows that people are uncomfortable if left alone with their thoughts, even for a few minutes (Turkle 10).

One last thought from Turkle’s book to ponder:

These days we see that when people are alone at a stop sign or in the checkout line at the supermarket, then seem almost panicked and they reach for their phones. We are so accustomed to being always connected that being alone seems like a problem technology should solve…Afraid of being alone, we struggle to pay attention to ourselves. And what suffers is our ability to pay attention to each other (Turkle 10).

For those interested in reading the rest of her argument, I highly recommend picking up this book. I for one see what she is describing in action every day. Slowly, the incessant use of technology is destroying people’s ability to “endure” being alone with their own thoughts, to contemplate the deeper ideas that not only form the basis of an intellectual life but a truly spiritual one as well.

One of the many things I love about Spiritual Naturalism is that it allows for an individual, reflective quest for meaning. I read articles and books, ponder their ideas, and integrate many of the new and fresh perspectives I encounter into my understanding of what is true. This requires an open-mindedness and singularly disciplined approach to growing and evolving as an individual on both mental and spiritual levels. It also requires a good degree of solitude so that those thoughts can percolate and merge with my current beliefs and understandings. I feel, as Sherry Turkle does, that our technologies are preventing such contemplations from taking place, and may even be destroying our capacity for them to take place at all. I wonder if when the television was first created if anyone said, “Wait. Hold on just a moment. Before we unleash this new technology on the world, have we considered the moral, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual impacts of doing so?” Did that conversation ever happen, on any level, or were the creators to anxious to profit from their creation to care what those effects might be? The same goes for the computer, the cell phone, and the ever-emerging smorgasbord of new gadgets and gizmos coming out every day. They offer us “freedom” from our solitude, or offer “cures” for it, and they are coming at us with overwhelming speed. We don’t even have time to have the real conversations about their potentials, both good and bad, before they have integrated themselves into every aspect of our lives and the meaningful conversations about them become moot before they even have a chance to get started.

Now, I am not some militant new-Luddite who would like to see us go back to stone tools and fire as our only technologies. I am not advocating that we stop using the devices that have become part and parcel of our modern lives. I am using such technologies to even be able to have the privilege of sharing my thoughts with you right now. I use these tools too, to read the news, listen to podcasts hosted by intelligent people, and for other daily tasks (though I do not own a cell phone, and have never sent a text message). Calls to abandon our technologies are unreasonable, unrealistic, and counter-productive. They are here to stay.

At the same time, what I am calling for is a degree of skepticism regarding how these tools can and are being used, and that the conversations regarding their impacts, both actualized and potential, actually happen in an open and honest manner. We must balance their use with other activities that allow us to retain the abilities that make thought-provoking conversation, critical thinking, and empathy possible. As an English teacher, I am engaged in a daily battle trying to find ways for students to engage with intellectually stimulating reading material in authentic ways. There are electronic tools out there that can enhance those experiences. Unfortunately, I more often see the tools used as shortcuts or ways to avoid or undermine the processes that build genuine skill. Students will do everything they can to avoid actually reading something, or sharing their thoughts orally in real time without the ability to craft those responses in advance as texting allows. The key is to engage in conversation and raise awareness about what our tools can do and how we can best employ them, without upsetting that delicate balance and sacrificing part of what it is to be human at technology’s altar.

Our spiritual journeys, in the end, are our own. We can meet fellow “pilgrims” along the way, and join like-minded communities of truth-seekers as we walk the paths of meaning and discovery. Such support is a necessary and valuable thing. I have found such a community here. However, my connectivity to others must never supplant my need for solitude and deep, individualized contemplation of what new ideas and perspectives mean to me. I just won’t let that happen. My fear is that our younger generations, unless something is done, will never even gain the capacity to make productive use of their solitude, if they ever even experience it. They will never learn to value being alone. In response to that concern, here are some things I suggest we do to help find the balance we need:

  • Talk to young people, in any way your lives bring them into contact with you, and work to talk to them about issues that matter and get them engaged. Make them put their phones away for the duration of that conversation (it won’t be easy for them).
  • Put your own devices away for a period of time each day, and engage in an activity requiring solitude. Read a quality book, go for a long walk in the woods, by a lake, or in a park. Meditate. Just enjoy being alone with your thoughts. Contemplate your life, the meaning you have brought to it, your mortality, and how you can best use the time that has been given to you.
  • Find people with whom you can engage in genuine, honest, sustained conversation about the things that are important to you. Get past the small talk. Then, when alone again, really think about what you learned, consider the perspectives of those with whom you conversed, and absorb that which seems reasonable. You’ll be surprised how much there is.
  • Find sources of news and information that you can trust, become informed about what is going on in the world, and act in ways that best reflect your personal beliefs and values. You will then be armed with the knowledge about which to reflect in your times of solitude.
  • If you live in a place where it is safe to do so (I lament that it isn’t so everywhere), wait until it gets dark and go for a walk, and as Robert Frost did, “get acquainted” with the night, a natural time to nurture your solitude. Leave your phone at home. You won’t regret it.
  • Finally, take the time to read some great poetry every day, from minds who knew how important and valuable solitude is. Like this gentleman (the emphasis is mine):

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

–from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”
by William Wordsworth

 

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References:

Turkle, Sherry. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.

 

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