The most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…
Correct the belief that fulfillment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.
These words, by the Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton (writing about Nietzsche), beautifully describe the paradox that I believe many people struggling to live out their purpose discover. And although these “greatest pains” take on many forms, I think one of the most common is aloneness.
The necessity of solitude and being alone
Perhaps you know this pain. Perhaps you are deeply familiar with it. For indeed it is something that has been lived (and written about) by many of the world’s greatest authors, artists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, prophets, spiritual leaders, etc.
It is a necessary state of being that Hemingway famously wrote about: Writing, at its best, is a lonely life… He does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
Or the beloved Rainer Rilke, who writes in his Letters to a Young Poet:
[You] are bearing your solitude more heavily than usual. But when you notice that it is vast, you should be happy; for what (you should ask yourself) would a solitude be that was not vast; there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap…
But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself.
And does this difficulty and solitude apply only to writers and artists? If you are not a writer/artist then I’m sure you know that it does not. Even this past week, I came across a writing on leadership which described the most evolved leaders of our time as: being engaged in a lonely frontier of human evolution, welcoming whatever non possessive spiritual/subtle guidance and friendship they can find, but also very likely to have a deep sense of being alone; in some difficult-to-understand sense, necessarily alone; one, in a way no one else possibly can be. Paradoxically, they feel intimately connected to the entire human and more-than-human field. (William R Torbert)
How being in the dark allows you to see the dark
And yet, (not surprisingly) this is a state of being that we are afraid to embrace and that society is afraid to encourage or allow. We worry about the unmarried 35 year old, the lone coffeeshop novel reader, the person purchasing a single movie ticket or traveling alone, living alone, eating alone. And more concerningly, we are afraid to be that person.
Instead, is it possible that we can embrace the darkness? The solitude and the aloneness. In the words of my brother — during a week in which he lost his job, watched his car get impounded, and was kicked out of his house — all while (struggling to) pursue his dream:
Stop looking for light at the end of the tunnel and learn to find God in the darkness.
Living in the darkness. Without a light at the end of the tunnel. Or a candle. Or a flashlight. For all of these clutches are superficial: they pretend to be a tool but actually limit our ability to be.
In the words of author Edward Abbey:
[A flashlight would] separate a man from the world around him. If I switch it on my eyes adapt to it and I can see only the small pool of light which it makes in front of me; I am isolated.
Leaving the flashlight in my pocket where it belongs, I remain a part of the environment I walk through and my vision though limited has no sharp or definite boundary.
Living in the darkness is difficult. And that’s the very point. If it weren’t difficult then it wouldn’t be worth doing.
In the words of Rilke:
We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.
Being alone versus being lonely
Perhaps we can also find hope in knowing that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. That the former doesn’t necessary have to lead to the latter (although it can and many of the great writers often don’t seem to differentiate between the two. Or perhaps they intentionally write about loneliness).
Although I still struggle between the two (and between understanding how to be in one and not the other), I find hope in Wendell Berry’s writing, which claims that by doing good work, we enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness.
And in author Andrea Balt, who shares similar thoughts on the difference between loneliness and solitude (aloneness):
Loneliness then, could count as a feeling, while solitude transcends the feeling-only state and reaches deeper into the architecture of the soul and, if fully embraced, serves as a confirmation of the individual’s eternal and sufficient nature.
Connecting more deeply through solitude
And yet, I find myself wondering if solitude means that we have to live lives that are constantly removed from the world. And especially our loved ones and our community. According to Wendell Berry, however, it seems that this is one of the great paradoxes of solitude: that it can often lead to a much deeper connection between others.
True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
Sara Maitland also writes beautifully about this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon:
Curiously, and importantly, mastering the art of solitude doesn’t make us more antisocial but, to the contrary, better able to connect. By being intimate with our own inner life — that frightening and often foreign landscape that philosopher Martha Nussbaum so eloquently urged us to explore despite our fear — frees us to reach greater, more dimensional intimacy with others.
If you know who you are and know that you are relating to others because you want to, rather than because you are trapped (unfree), in desperate need and greed, because you fear you will not exist without someone to affirm that fact, then you are free. Some solitude can in fact create better relationships, because they will be freer ones.
Perhaps the secret to aloneness versus loneliness lies in between these words and ideas. The ability to be truly free and alone. And yet using that freedom to become a more true form of yourself, able to freely, uninhibitedly and selflessly be with the world.
Perhaps this is the love that comes through solitude, and the love that Rainer Rilke writes about in his letters:
Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you… Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.