Of Solitude & Love

When I picture myself joyful, I am inevitably alone. There's no one else even in sight, no distant drone of freeways, all worries of money and familial guilt abated. Usually, I'm in the desert, the vast arid landscape and enormous black sky enveloping me,  feeding me, nourishing me. It's just the cosmos and me, getting it on.

I remember when I first read Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling, living in Manhattan after college, alone late at night and my whole world pulsated. What blows Kierkegaard away is Abraham utterly alone in his decisions, utterly alone in his faith, walking up that mountain on the way to sacrifice his only son. Yes, I thought. This is the challenge of life, this is the challenge I want to take up: to be utterly alone and utterly strong and intimate with god. This felt right to me.

I found a similar image years later in Nietzsche who writes of being on the mountain top where the air is cold. You need strong lungs, he says, to breathe air at such altitudes. Below, the masses tarry and whine and lead their little lives but up there, o, up there the view is magnificent. He didn't want any company. He asked you to climb your own mountain. To which I replied with a most emphatic yes.

Nietzsche said great men, great thinkers, don't marry. Kierkegaard proposed then broke the engagement and then obsessed over it for the rest of his life. Me, I married. Something in me wanted company, wanted love, wanted a beautiful warm body to hold and know, someone who cared about whether I was sick, someone about whom I could dream and for whom I could do sweet things. And then I bred to have more bodies, more company, around me. But that life didn't suit me and so I left that situation and now find myself in a funny place between solitude and the social. I spend days alone not talking to or seeing anyone — except my son.

The social distracts me, exhausts me. I end up spending my vital energy tending to the tics and politics of people. Not that people are bad or wrong. I love people. But I find that I don't metabolize them well. People, for me, are like rich food — heavy on the gut, trying on the digestion. They don't move through me as they should: they either get stuck, plugging up the whole apparatus, or else run through me like so much, well, you get the idea. I don't consider this misanthropy. I see it as a question of my metabolic system: you don't eat gluten, I don't see people.

Recently, I was talking with a wise friend of mine, someone who has lead a magnificent life of travels and adventures and loves. When I told her my feelings about solitude, about why I spend so much time alone, she was taken aback. I live for love, she told me. I love to love. I love to give myself wholly of and to and with another person — not as a way to abandon myself but as a way to feel and experience that cosmic surge. Where I find so much distraction and exhaustion, she finds vitality. For her, this is not just a matter of being social, going to parties, making chit chat. No, she scans the world, eats the world, looking for people who will ignite her already hot embers, who will incite and inspire and move her.

This blew me away. How could this woman who is so conspicuously vital and smart and alive find her energy, find the seething cosmos, in other people — in the precise way that depletes me? I began to interrogate my own propensities, my assumptions, my attraction to Kierkegaard's Abraham and Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Am I avoiding the cosmos in my solitude? Could it be that my desert — real and metaphoric — is a retreat rather than a reckoning? Should I be seeking the social? Should I be looking for love (oy, why do I hear Johnny Lee all of a sudden?)?

When I look back at the times I've felt most alive, most vital, I've been alone. I've felt an ecstasy and connection to the universe to make my hair stand on edge, make every cell in my body vibrate. Sometimes, this has come when writing. Am I alone when I write? Is Merleau-Ponty entwined with me even then? Perhaps we could say I'm not really alone. In which case I'd say maybe it's not aloneness as much as solitude I crave. I don't to want to hear the voices or breath of others, even if they're sitting quietly in another room. I don't want to feel their presence; I don't want to consider their needs. So while books are a kind of social, I suppose, they're so much quieter than flesh — and less immediately demanding (but still demanding in their own way!).

But when I think about when I've been happiest, it is certainly with people — cuddling mornings with my son, frolicking on acid with Matt in the weird Philly night, prancing about my hometown out of my brain on this and that singing the theme to the Odd Couple which has no words.  These moments were not distractions; they were not silly or frivolous. They, too, were cosmic surgings, a resonating with the universe.

To state the obvious, I don't think there's a right way to experience the fullness of life. It all depends on your — or, in this case, my — way of going. Clearly, the cosmos is in the Sonoran sky as much as it's in your sweetie's eye. Nor is there an absolute dichotomy of solitude vs. the social. I lead my relatively solitary life knowing full well there are at least a few people who think of me, care for me, love me. In many ways, this has been a buttress maintaining my solitude: it's easy to be alone when there's a torrent of love, even if it's not in the same room.  

Maybe what attracts me to Kierkegaard's Abraham and Nietzsche's mountain man is not their solitude but their certainty. I may say the line between solitude and the social is not absolute but there are real decisions with real implications that I have to make. Living in San Francisco, spending time with other people is different than living in a mobile home in the New Mexico high desert, miles from anyone.

When I was talking with the same wise friend of mine, I found myself saying to her that I was waiting. For what? she asked. I couldn't answer her. Am I waiting for my son to be old enough to live on his own so I can flee this dyspepsia of social life, go to the desert and sever my social ties once and for all in order to feel the seething cosmos all the time?  Or am I waiting for the love of others?

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

I get it. The let us call it 'philosophic' mood, the need for solitude. Not lonely, but alone and comfortable within its cocoon. Time and space for reflection and creativity. That is one full aspect of my being.

But I have another full, competing aspect. The need for the Other. And sometimes, especially in my youth, that need was overpowering. A source of great despair if unfulfilled.

Too much of one and the need for the other asserts itself. It's a hard balance.

Not enough has been made of the delusional nature of K's Abraham. Cocksure that 'God' has told him to slaughter his only legit son & heir and then convinced not. Sure, a burgeoning awareness in stoneage(?) man of his own moral sense. But no objective, dare I say 'social' checks on his behavior. Think of some Afghani tribesman today who might decide to haul his only boy off into the mountains for the purpose of sacrificing him to some 'God' or inner voice. Or put that person in San Francisco or Atlanta. It's just delusional madness. Stubbornness. To dress that up as nobility and 'Faith' is simply wrong.

Just spent a day with the Dalai Lama who, among other things, presided over a panel discussion with Franz de Waal (I'm betting he'll win a Nobel someday!) and Richard Davidson whose researches are showing that apes and children are hard-wired for empathy and moral sentiments such as fairness and prefer generosity. We don't form societies for no reason. We don't all become stylites for a reason.

One other thing that I took away from their research: Tibetan meditation on compassion (as opposed to pure contemplation) can have salubrious physiological effects, as well as strengthening social bonds.

By the way, I follow your blog in my updating blogroll feed at my own blog: Wisdom of the West. I would invite and appreciate your Comment on my (probably amateurish by your standards) run at the Tractatus here: