By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Loneliness, aloneness, or solitude is that awful feeling and condition of being apart from loved ones and friends. Even in the midst of crowds, even more in crowds of strangers, loneliness bites hard, one is in a deep mental hole, seeking escape in some activity, some diversion, no matter how trivial and silly.
But solitude can be a chosen condition to be away from everybody, with my own company, my thoughts, and my inner self in order to quiet my mind, put away worries, and do creative work without distractions from others. Such solitude is much to be desired on occasion, allowing me to recreate myself, find my true self once again, and afterward carry on with my life with others with relish and patience. Hunger for my loved ones rises up in me again after a period of solitude, my spirit refreshed and rested.
Prisons put difficult or quarrelsome inmates in solitary confinement; it’s a severe punishment, especially painful to young prisoners who desperately need the company of their peers. Yet, alone in a cell for 42 years Robert Stroud became the Birdman of Alcatraz.
Some persons, like Stroud, are born mavericks, lone wolves, outliers in population statistics. They seek new ways and uncover new knowledge in lonely pursuits. Loners are the greatest creators, coming up in their isolation with new insights into nature and life.
Still, every fine creative mind likes to have a companion for the reflection of ideas and wild imaginings, like Francis Crick and James Watson of The Double Helix, with the discovery of DNA structure. Other researchers were involved in this effort such as Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin.
Other members of a group may contribute something, but the original idea comes one person from the source of all ideas. God speaks to the individual soul, not to groups, according to Saint Augustine and Meister Eckhart.
God spoke to Socrates (my daemon spoke to me, he used to say to his students); to Moses and Jesus alone in the desert; to Mohammad alone in a cave, and to Gautama Buddha fasting alone in the forest of India. After their enlightenment, these persons returned to the world of people to teach virtue, morality, and liberation from the bonds of the flesh.
Yes and often people alone who hear voices from God or whatever go mad indeed, ending up in insane asylums.
In any case, great leaders, mad or sane, are essentially private people apart from the crowds, egotistical and driven individuals, who see themselves as special beings, destined for great deeds, Messiahs indeed. How we see these people depends on their success or failure in doing what they set out to achieve. Christopher Columbus was laughed at for his ideas of seeking West a passage to India, until he met Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.
Innovators come up with their magic “far from the madding crowd.” They need quiet, freedom from distractions, to concentrate, to focus all the energies of their minds on one problem they must solve.
Creators may return to the crowd to be rewarded, be appreciated by their fellows, and raise funds for the development, production, and marketing of their invention.
Thomas Edison was probably the most prolific inventor that has ever lived. He worked long hours at a stretch and when exhausted took a nap under a staircase. His laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, was packed with assistants, technicians, and workers. He came up with ideas which he implemented with the help of his associates.
The fruits of our minds come from the self, the fountainhead of creation. We think alone even when we talk with others. We’re born alone and die alone in pain or resignation. We breathe alone our first gulp of air after a slap on the back, and draw our last breath before going back out into the void.
We grow and expand our consciousness in periods of solitude, especially close to nature. Most people, deprived of the company of others, become desiccated, bored, and depressed.
As a young boy I was very much attached to my mother, her absence deeply depressed me. When rarely she went on a trip without me I would go into her closet for a long time to be close to her smell and miss her less. My daughter Alia also got depressed when she was four and I went away for two weeks. She would pick up and munch on snails in the garden.
Snails, brought by French settlers to California, escaped and spread in the state. I don’t know what they taste like raw. It’s a sensation I will not seek.
The senses need to be stilled for deep meditation and soul searching. In most meditations we close our eyes and concentrate our attention inward. People have also entered dark tanks filled with water to quiet their senses and expand their consciousness.
Yet, psychologists have shown that a child that is deprived of stimulation does not grow well mentally. Children raised by a female wolf cannot speak and act like animals. Tarzan, raised by apes, was an exception, developing into a hero, able to mimic all voices both animal and human; but he was fictional.
Mavericks, stray animals, apart from the herd do not fare well, often getting killed by predators before they’re fully mature. The herd provides safety and protection, the strong bulls standing guard in front of the weaker members and the young.
If you want to create, you need to stand apart from the crowd and think differently from them. A true artist is never an imitator, but projects a unique personality on creations.
Deprived of things to manipulate to our ends we become stultified. Charlie Gordon in “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes goes from an IQ of 68 to one of 185 through brain surgery, acquiring many things for his rooms, computers, television, tools, books, papers, etc. When Charlie’s IQ returns to 68 all these objects are gone form his environment.
An extreme sensory deprivation is the loss of eyesight. My brother-in-law George Coss at 94 is practically blind and naturally unhappy about his state. William Henley in the same condition was moved to write Invictus, his famous s poem: “Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”
Being alone and blind must be a special challenge. Still, Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Here I sit between my brother the mountain and my sister the sea. We three are one in loneliness and the love that binds us together is deep and strong and strange.”
Frank Sinatra sang different words about loneliness in “Downtown.”
When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can go downtown.
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know downtown
Listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon lights are pretty
How can you lose?
It seems then that loneliness or solitude has advantages and disadvantages which can be reconciled with the proper attitude we take. We should define loneliness as being alone and unhappy about it, because we miss our crowd and our loved ones. Then we can define solitude as being alone for quietness, recovery, discovery of our true selves, and contact with a higher power.
Paul Tillich put this idea rather well. “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude the glory of being alone.”