A Few Thoughts on Solitude

In preparing the Greek mythology class, as well as readings from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and other reflections, the theme of solitude has come up many times.

In the story of Odysseus and Penelope, they are separated for many years because of his involvement in the Trojan war. On his long journey home, he hears the beautiful singing of the sirens, barely escapes from the Cyclopes, is invited to stay and become immortal by Calypso, is washed up on the island of Phaeacia where he hears his life sung for him at a banquet, and finally returns to his wife Penelope. During his absence Penelope has been showing the same heroic qualities of inner strength as she weaves out a solitary life and relies on her intelligence and wit to protect her home from those who would invade it.

From a certain perspective, what seems to be involved here is a struggle on the part of both Penelope and Odysseus that takes place for each in solitude. In this struggle they come to recognize their limits and mortality as well as their deeper longings. From this hard won wisdom, they are now capable of a profound love for each other which gives meaning to their lives.

In a very similar way, Rilke writes: “Your inner solitude will be a support and a home to you. It will be the starting point of all your journeys.” He suggests that this solitude can be a source of profound awareness: “Go into yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs.” Elsewhere he writes: “Slowly and with time the natural growth of your inner life will bring you to fuller awareness.” From this solitude can arise a profound love: “the love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and great each other.”

Solitude differs from loneliness. Loneliness can be described as a felt absence and isolation that is unwelcome. This sense of isolation has been made more difficult and painful as a result of the prolonged pandemic which often evokes an irritability and weariness of soul.

Solitude, distinct from loneliness, is a time of quietness by ourselves. It may be initially uncomfortable, but if we are able to be immersed in life with awareness and openness, that time in our own company can be a time to reflect on our life, our experiences, our relationships, our place in society. One example that comes to mind is the difference between being alone by oneself in an unfamiliar and somewhat cold hotel room, and being by oneself in a home that knows or has known the presence of people with whom we have shared our lives. One place tastes of absence and the other of presence.

We are each a unique person, and there are no carbon copies of any of us. We are also quite complex, with a vast variety of backgrounds, life-situations, experiences, reactions, thoughts, feelings, and much more. We are to a considerable extent a puzzle, a question, a mystery to ourselves, as well as to one another. Solitude, time spent quietly by oneself, is a way to journey to and get in touch with our inmost self. This dawning awareness may come from reading something reflective, going for a walk at dawn or twilight, spending time in a natural setting, listening to music, or engaging in some form of meditation. This need not be seen as a probing into oneself from without with a kind of psychological pliers.. It can be simply allowing what is within to arise, hopefully in a gentle way, to the surface of our awareness. As an example, if we go to a pond and stir up the bottom with a stick, everything becomes murky and cloudy. But if we and the water become perfectly still, the water becomes clear and what is at the bottom can be seen.

Part of this process is to allow our feelings to arise in a safe place for us and we may find that one feeling dissolves and another emerges. What is helpful is to recognize that all of us share the whole range of human feelings from sadness to joy, from anger to compassion. It is also important to recognize that while we have such feelings we do not either have to deny them to ourselves or unleash them on others. We can simply notice them and let them be, somewhat as we would notice a cloud floating by.

Sometimes we may find it to difficult to sit quietly by ourselves. Then it can be helpful to be with a caring other person with whom we may discover our own feelings through conversation in a context of trustworthiness and trust. Or we may share these feelings with another whom we can trust..

If we try to spend some quiet time by ourselves, we may at first feel uncomfortable. We may recognize that we are in fact living most of the time in what we could call our hurt or fear or angry town. I think that these are part of all our experiences. At the same time, we may also gradually be aware of something in us that is deeper than all of these feelings. It is who we are beneath and beyond and more than these. We may also sense that this is a place of sacredness and worth, even if we are not often there. And it is our real home.

We might say that we are truly free when we are at home to our inmost self and can then be truly at home to and even a home for one another. In the words of Rilke, to discover a “ love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and great each other.”

May your loneliness turn into a solitude in which you discover your true self and its sacred worth May you find your true home within yourselves and live there and from there. May you become more and more a home for those near to you and a place of compassion for others.

Norman King