“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and, as he thinks, remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues”; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Another example of a Thoreau word-explosion-as-paragraph, and one I wanted to compress into a smaller bite, mind you, but didn’t have the heart to. Henry was never lonely because he surrounded himself with an ample supply of words. His work resonates because he combined so many of them into insightful and timeless nuggets that we still find nutritious today. For a guy who spent so much time alone, he still manages to connect with so many.
The difference between solitude and loneliness is very much aligned with what we perceive ourselves to be doing with the time. Active engagement in meaningful work, expressed creativity, meditation, exercise and prayer are each forms of reaching outside of ourselves for connection to the greater energy force that hums all around us. I write this knowing the words will come, and I’m but an editor for the muse. How can you feel alone in such moments?
Many people encountered solitude during the pandemic and were forced to reconcile what it meant for them. I found it to be a time of connection with family, who otherwise would have been off doing their own thing as I did mine. It made no difference whether I was alone in a home office or in a hotel room, for solitude is solitude anywhere—but it doesn’t have to be loneliness. Feeling alone is to look for connection with the universe and finding no answer.
There’s no doubt that surrounding ourselves with the right people leads to a happier, more fulfilling and longer life. With any strong group dynamic we rise to meet others, even as they rise to meet us, providing a lift to the entire group. Community gives us momentum and mutual support, solitude gives us the elbow room to mine the best out of ourselves. Don’t we each need both to live a full life?