A man can be himself only so long as he is alone….if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free – Schopenhauer (The World As Will And Idea – 1818)
These are noisy times. Muscular times. Fast times.
This is the age when everything, and everyone, is interconnected, yet, this is also the age when the ‘collective’ is dead, except, of course, for the sporadic, terminal jerks of the ‘spring’ fever of revolt everywhere.
“Individualism” is king, with the individual being encouraged, lauded, and fetishised, like never before. Nothing is beyond him; the world is his oyster. But in a world which whirrs ever faster, forcing him to keep pace, what could be worse than being left behind? “Being left behind” – the monster under our bed that keeps us all awake in a constant state of hyper-animated anxiety. When the whole world is a blur, speeding past us, our innate need to hold on to things itself becomes fragmented, dis-jointed. We latch on to “key-words”, mistaking the label for the object, the idea. We walk faster, eat faster, do things faster, using these labels as hand-holds to pull ourselves forward, for to fall off the tread-mill is to fail. The pace seems inexorable, and technology, its standard-bearer, urges us on, higher and faster.
But this presents a disturbing picture:
On the one hand, technology has made it easy for us to lead solitary lives, with everything just the click of a mouse away. It is distinctly possible to spend days with minimal contact with other humans. Food, clothes, even houses, are just a click away. And more and more, we have these technological marvels, the ‘apps’ that seem to shout, “You don’t have to wait anymore! Paradise is here, now?” Already there is talk of robots taking away the drudgery of our household chores. Driverless cars, GPRS that ensures you’re never lost, will soon take you where you need to go, infallibly, smoothly. And in this credit card-board world, the consumptive-consumer is truly king.
On the other, as we embrace this physically isolated way of living, we make up for that by crowding our minds with a non-stop babel of noises. From the moment we wake up, to when we drop off……we seem to be frenetically counter-balancing this loneliness by consuming mentally too. It seems to be most natural, first thing in the morning, to reach for one’s cell-phone, tv remote, or computer, to start stuffing one’s mind with all the goodies that one missed while asleep.
The result of this permanent buffet is a relentless, frantic consumption, followed (as is normal when one overeats) by purging.
Physically, we purge by frequently discarding what we have, and buying new stuff. Mentally? Well, when the clamour, the din of ‘takes’, judgments, points-of-view, in our skull are too much to handle, we vent by voicing our opinion. The act of consumption, and the act of venting, seem to have validity because we are constantly ‘doing’ something. After all, this is also the ‘muscular’ age, the age of the ‘doer’. Look at how we define ourselves, the markers we use to trace our lives: My first school, my first kiss, my first cigarette/beer/liquor, my first job, my first marriage, my first divorce………and so on and so on. Notice anything peculiar in the list? ALL the markers are tangible, material ones. Ever heard someone talk about, ‘My first idea’?
Has this always been so? Have we always prized the immediate for the long-term, whether it is something we buy, or some belief we hold? Do we mistake activity for achievement? Do we abhor spaces, physical or mental, and constantly try to fill them up?
Has this ceaseless activity, this din we live in distorted our lives? If noise, in any form, is the constant backdrop, wouldn’t lack of it be considered abnormal? If ‘opinion’ is normal, surely ‘idea’ can’t be? And in all that cacophony, the loudest wins, so we all strain to give knee-jerk opinions, as loudly as we can. For surely that is our duty? To participate, vigorously, and dogmatically, in the belief that this is the best of all worlds? We are reassured that loudness, and immediacy, are the hallmarks of a vigorously participative people, just as consumption is. What we forget, is that most everything is a habit. The faster we consume and purge, the more we want to. This tendency has always been latent over the centuries, and great people have spoken/written at length about fighting it. What has changed is the pace of change, and the tools. Thanks to technology, we have consumed more, and faster, over the past six decades, than we have over the previous centuries! Slightly less than five hundred years ago, Montaigne, had essayed writing about Solitude. Nearly a couple of centuries ago, Schopenhauer was already commenting on the virtues of solitude, of it being synonymous with freedom. A century later, Isabelle Eberhardt said something similar:
“For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all.”
– Isabelle Eberhardt (The Nomad –early 20th century?)
So, if solitude is such a wonderful thing, why are we afraid of it?
Because ‘solitude’ requires too much work by each of us, and no one wants to work hard at anything, if there is no recognition at the end of it; for solitude presupposes lack of any external audience.
When the immediacy of everything is paramount, to pause (not to disengage, but), to reflect is a luxury not extended by us to others, leave alone to ourselves!
For while we may live with all kinds of emotions, howsoever bad they may be, the worst, and the most fearful, is living with ourselves! And in our hurry to be rid of ourselves, we call solitude names. We confuse it with loneliness, we equate it with emptiness, motionlessness, all kinds of demonic qualities that we must avoid
But what we forget is that solitude is quite the opposite. It is not withdrawal, it is more an engagement with our thoughts, our beliefs…… it is putting ourselves under our mental microscope, it is what gives the artist his art, the craftsman his craft. It is neither a vacuum chamber where nothing may enter; nor is it a carapace, a hard shell to keep the world out…. It is more like a filter that lets us pause, allows us to examine everything that passes through our mind, and asks us to question, with sense, with wisdom, with grace, with truth! Solitude is the enhancer of nuances that we ignore daily.
But when one is uncomfortable being by oneself, the repercussions ripple outward.
For, solitude, truly, is one of the essentials of freedom; and everytime we refuse to take a step back, we give up a bit of our freedom. For when one is not allowed to be alone, one is at the constant mercy of others, in a constantly reactive state. And reactions are just that, something beyond our control. Every reaction is based on a stimulus. And in this constant binge-purge cycle that passes for modern life, the mistake we make is in thinking that those who stimulate us to consume, are concerned only by the material aspect. Look deeper, and you’ll see a pattern: The material consumptive-consumer is so conditioned, that he has neither the energy, the desire, nor the attention-span to participate in any political process over a prolonged period of time. The immediacy of consumption has ensured that.
Nothing more need be said, when Wikipedia, the Bible of reference these days has this definition of solitude:
Solitude is a state of seclusion or isolation, i.e., lack of contact with people. It may stem from bad relationships, loss of loved ones, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation (see castaway).
Consume! For if you don’t, you MUST be diseased!
© R. Venkatesh, 2015
Images by Dennis Dodson and Richa Narvekar