Vol 8, Num 11 :: 2009.05.22 — 2009.06.05
At night with the windows down, whatever the weather. Music loud and singing along, or sometimes off altogether, especially if the noise is peepers and crickets on a rural road. Or sometimes not diesel- but human-powered and the only sound is the crunch of my bike tires against specks of gravel as they move me swiftly and quietly through a dark neighborhood at rest. Something in me is replenished by being outside alone at night, moving from point A to point B — something I tend to forget about in the light of the sun or the incandescent lamps that perpetuate my day well beyond a decent hour.
It’s taken me a long time to admit that I like being alone. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to do aloneness well and I’m still working on it. With three younger siblings and a boyfriend (who’s now my husband) since I was fifteen, I honestly haven’t had much practice.
I don’t have aspirations to be a recluse who intentionally never has a meaningful relationship beyond her four cats, though I do like cats. And I’m drawn toward reclusion. I believe we need each other and that we learn invaluable lessons when thrown together against our immediate wills or enduring the ups and downs of committed, long term relationships. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” God said, and commenced upon creatively solving that problem. In fact, much of the content in catapult magazine is about negotiating relationships and building healthy community in a variety of settings with delight and creativity.
However, I don’t think I’m alone in believing that being by one’s self has become unfairly associated with eccentricity, but perhaps more insidiously, intentionally associated with punishment. Certainly the modern educational system socializes us to be people people as we learn together, play together and study together forty hours or more per week. Being separated from the group and made to spend time alone is used from an early age as a penalty for breaking the rules, with the restorative goal being successful socialization. This type of negative aloneness exists as a preventative or “normalizing” measure that is too rarely balanced with a positive kind of aloneness that we might call solitude, and therefore our collective notion of being alone as a healthy practice is weakened.
Thomas Merton was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific, practicing authors on solitude. His condemnation of false solitude resonates with a critique of aloneness used as punishment toward normalization:
The need for true solitude is a complex and dangerous thing, but it is a real need. It is all the more real today when the collectivity tends more and more to swallow up the person in its shapeless and faceless mass. The temptation of our day is to equate “love” and “conformity” — passive subservience to the mass-mind or to the organization.
Using alone time as a punitive tool to enforce conformity, Merton might say, is ironic, given conformity’s tendency to swallow up the individual in destructive ways. Many of us have experienced a sense of holy rebellion at being “swallow[ed] up” by a mass force that effectively undermines our humanity. Think of being shoved around in a crowd after a sporting event or stereotyped by gender-directed advertising. However, we’re often not equipped with an awareness of how to practice true solitude — what Merton calls “the home of the person” — that helps us reclaim our humanity in the context of God’s love, whether we’re literally alone or struggling to cross a narrow footbridge with thousands of sweaty, drunk fellow fans.
Rather, we’re conditioned to embrace escapism as the cure by simply avoiding the people and situations we dislike. Getting away from it all might look like a private home gym where we don’t have to listen to someone else’s morning pundits or moving out to the country where we can be insulated by enough acreage to avoid the neighbor’s ATV. Merton would identify this instinct as “false solitude[,] the refuge of the individualist.” He writes,
…The only justification for a life of deliberate solitude is the conviction that it will help you to love not only God but also other men. If you go into the desert merely to get away from people you dislike, you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils.
True solitude, therefore, turns back in on true community. “Go into the desert not to escape other men but in order to find them in God,” instructs Merton. And the desert might be literal or figurative, a bare landscape of rocks and sand or a state of being within one’s self.
Or maybe it’s a car with all the windows down, hugging the curves of a dark country road.