The Beatitudes of Solitude and Self-reliance

*Found in the “draft” archives from May 2022. Revealed to the world, and supplemented with images in February 2023….

Today I spoke with a friend about my fear that one day he will leave me behind, lost in the wilderness in a vulnerable state. We laughed about that, and he pointed out that we could laugh because “there is nothing to be left behind,” a remark which I am still working to interpret, perambulating the wilderness of unfinished discussions in which he and I often find ourselves and lose one another. Perhaps he means that the idea of being left behind is a greater source of anguish than the reality.

And indeed, I think of the (luckily very few) times I have been left behind in a strange place by people with whom I had theretofore experienced some level of fellowship and mutual trust, and in those cases, I find that anxiety gave way to despair and then to a breakthrough of ingenuity and trust in my own intelligence, creativity, and resourcefulness that helped me find my way.

For example, I once attended a three-day conference at the University of Ghent, and on the last day some of us went to lunch in the city center, rolling suitcases and all, as we all were set to take the train back immediately after the lunch. We walked what seemed to be a long and circuitous route from the university to the lunch place, taking several turns down charming little streets and crossing the river at one point, and I hardly paid attention to the landmarks around us as I was in lively conversation with my newfound friends. We arrived at the cafe and had a lovely time eating and discussing the conference. After the meal, the others ordered a taxi to take them to the train station. They did not have space for me in the taxi and they left me to make my own way: they were from the same institution and it was all paid for, they told me apologetically. My phone had run out of data and I did not have GPS. The people I stopped to ask for directions did not speak English, or did not know the area, as they were tourists. I did not have a number for a cab company, had no more cash with me, and my train was leaving soon. So I decided to risk retracing my steps, and found that some part of my brain had been cartographically aware of the convoluted way we had come. I even resurrected parts of the dialogue in my memory to aid my recollection of the right turns to take, and when I finally reached the train station I was late for my train, but luckily it had been delayed, so I made my way back to the airport in Brussels (had I missed the train I would have missed my flight). I congratulated myself on the success of this adventure…and yes, I know there might have been an easier solution than this, but we do the best we can under the circumstances of stress, I suppose.

Believe it or not I took a picture of my lunch at the cafe that day…Ghent, November 2015

So when I reflect back on this and similar occasions (which have happened to everyone, no doubt), I think that perhaps my friend is right that the idea of being left behind is more fearsome than the actuality. But I also find that his assessment is incomplete.

My new conclusion is that my fear of being left behind is really rooted in the fear that belonging is but an illusion. And I suppose this fear carries validity and it does not at the same time, for one’s certainty in belonging can wax and wane just as much as can one’s certainty in alienation and exclusion.

There is an ecstasy in being in the company of others. Ideally, the presence of others allows one to feel recognized, seen, appreciated, wanted. Even when there is acrimony, there is at least a mutual recognition, a certainty of belonging to a dynamic, or an energetic exchange between two living souls. There is a reminder of one’s existence and its effects in relationship.

When it feels like there is no one there, no human source of reflection and validation (and realistically also projection), or if there is what might be called an “insecure attachment”, wherein the person is inconsistently present or available, the agony of loneliness can feel damning.

I think of the phenomenon of being ghosted, for instance. The ghost is not necessarily the person who has exited the conversation without announcing their departure. The ghost is the person whose voice is left hanging in the wind, a thread of unfinished business.

Though this is rather an instance of (apparently) a wrong number and not ghosting, strictly speaking, it is one of the more amusing examples of voices left hanging in the winds of text threads (this one dates from November 2015)…

This can be very disarming, because it can reveal the degree to which one has predicated one’s feelings of integral joy on the security of the other’s continued regard.

And this also carries the question of whether it is preferable to receive mocking or negative attention, or feigned affection rather than none at all. One very sad mythological example of this I can think of is the image of Agave from Euripides’ Bacchae, who has just killed her son King Pentheus while she was in the throes of Dionysian mania (all part of the god Dionysus’ plan to punish the city of Thebes for its refusal to honor him). She is parading her son’s head on a pike, still under the hallucinatory impression that the head belongs to a lion she has killed. The chorus of Dionysus’ followers, who are complicit in the city’s punishment, play along and act as if they are impressed with her killing of the lion, even though they have already revealed to the audience that they are well aware that she has murdered her son. But is Agave’s ignorant conception of her own celebrated belonging within the ritual community a happier thing than her eventual recognition of the truth which ultimately isolates her and leads her into exile?

Yes, these are all rather discouraging thoughts, but perhaps they can all lead to a hopeful place: the challenge of accepting solitude, which can be a great balm for loneliness and feelings of alienation, or abandonment.

I started listening to a series of Alan Watts’ talks, called What If You Are Not Doing It? What if It is Doing You? He discusses the problem of the conception of the self as separate from other beings, because of the space that exists between bodies (human, animal, planetary). His conception is that the space is a necessary component of bodies’ existence in relationship to one another. The space is necessary, for it is where connection occurs. Otherwise it would be impossible to distinguish one body from another.

And this does appear to be a useful meditation, for of course, we must have solitude in order to think for ans as ourselves, in order to understand and realize the individual gifts it is our charge to bring to the community of which we are a part.

This meditation is written from that place, where currently I am sitting in the deep quiet, during the eclipse, which is said to be a good time for birthing new concepts.

There is a beatitude, something very blessed in solitude, which is the other face of loneliness.

There is a kindness and self-compassion inherent in accepting and embracing solitude, the opportunity for quiet thinking, reading, working with images and ideas that come and go, some of which are helpful and some not helpful for sanity or progress. And the exercise in discerning one category of ideas from another is in itself a benefit of solitude.

One example of an insight I noticed when walking alone today came to me in a series of symbols, as if a waking dream:

Lagoon walk, UCSB, May 2022

I was walking a dirt path on the perimeter of a lagoon that wraps a semicircle around bluffs bordering the Pacific Ocean. I was making my way in the direction of the ocean with the lagoon on my left, and as I turned to look across the water at the bluffs, I noticed that the ocean breeze was rippling the water in the direction opposite the one I was travelling. This breeze became a head wind that met me as I walked, and it appeared to me that my progress was slower than before.

Raising my gaze from the water to the bluffs, I noticed two red-tailed hawks circling. One seemed to be following in the path of the other. The leader soared in wide arcs, almost never flapping its wings, while the other had to flap its wings frequently to gain momentum, as if it had not yet quite mastered the art of gliding. I thought of myself and my friend in that moment, and I wondered whether I am trying to fly like him, and in my imitation I am simply getting caught up in circling the same terrain of thought and action, taking smaller, more timid steps rather than striking out on my own. Or perhaps there is value in the imitation, and I am simply learning the art of gliding.

Then I became aware of footsteps behind me on the dirt road, walking in time with my own, not overtaking me or dropping back. My apprehension mingled with curiosity, but I did not look back to see the person. And then I thought amusedly, well, despite my interpretation of the hawk sighting, perhaps I’m leading after all!

And then I reached the place where the path diverged, where one route went to the beach and the other went up to the bluffs. I took the bluff route and my unseen walking companion’s footsteps faded and then disappeared as they met the sand of the beach.

So, even when given the unwanted opportunity for loneliness, is it possible to exist outside of relationship, out of sight, or sensory awareness of another, even if you are on discrete journeys and will never know each other?

But even if one is convinced that the answer to this question is “yes”, there is still an inner sight, and awareness of oneself that solitude can help to exercise, and there is a kind of loving contentment there, I think, alongside the ingenuity, the resourcefulness, and the laughter at the fear of loneliness.

As Simone de Beauvoir writes in the voice of her character Francoise in the wonderful book She Came to Stay which I will no doubt return to in later posts,

“Here I am, at the heart of my life”.

Labyrinth, UCSB, May 2022, aka “The Heart of My Life”

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