Our language has created two words to describe the experience of being alone. One is “loneliness,” used to capture the pain of being alone. The other is “solitude,” which expresses the glory of being alone.
In my third year on the first Bedlam Farm, a howling blizzard roared down from Canada. I knew then, I think, that I could never go home again, that my marriage was falling apart, but I couldn’t admit either of those things to myself or to anyone else.
I lied to myself every day. I was going home soon. My marriage was good.
There was at least two feet of snow on the ground, the wind was blowing huge drifts and the temperature was well below zero.
I called my dog Rose out with me – she was up for anything – put on boots and a heavy parka and started climbing up the steep hill with Rose leaping alongside of me. I wanted to get to the top of my mountain so I could look out over the valley below at this beautiful storm.
There were two chairs up on the top that I had put there, and I stomped through the wind and snow, out of breath and cold, the wind blowing ice crystals onto my face, where they were freezing. Rose ran behind the chair, out of the powerful wind.
It was worth the climb, the lights in the valley flickered in and out of the thickening snow, and the wind sent gorgeous whirls of white, all backlit by the floodlights on the barn and the house. It was both magical and mystical to see that snow and hear the wind screaming through the forest behind me.
I felt transported to another world. I had never imagined such aloneness, it felt so sweet.
I didn’t know better than to climb that hill, I was exhilarated to be so free and alone. I was on a journey.
I sat on the chair, and thought that for the first time in my life, no other human being had any idea where I was, no one other human could see me or hear me, I was utterly and completely alone, and the fear melted away, and the most beautiful and peaceful feeling came over me, I wanted to just lie there and go to sleep and spend the night.
Rose was smarter than I was, she barked, shook herself off, and started down the hill.
I remember thinking that I had to let her in the farmhouse, or she might freeze. So I got up and followed her down that hill and staggered, numb into the farmhouse.
They are two very different things, loneliness and solitude, although it’s easy to lost the distinction between them.
Like so many people, I have experienced both loneliness and solitude all of my life, being alone is an embedded, deeply woven part of me. I grew up alone, quite often feel alone, and most often, I am alone, one way or the other.
I am happy and at peace with me. Most of the time, I am enough.
I see now that this is my place, where I belong, where I am most at home. So often, when I am not alone, I feel the most alone.
My experience of aloneness was shattered by my marriage to Maria, which began the longest and deepest period of feeling connected to the world, and which interrupted both my loneliness and my solitude to this day. But like me, she needs to be alone for some of each day, the need for being alone is another of the things we share.
The philosopher Paul Tillich wrote that he never felt so lonely as in that particular hour when he was surrounded by people, but suddenly realized his ultimate isolation. I know that feeling well.
I am wary of people still, and I suppose I will always be. There are many in my life now, but I am most comfortable at a distance. Tillich says we feel the most alone when we are separated from those who helped us to forget that we are alone, either through separation or death.
He believed it was the greatness of human beings that they are centered within themselves. Separated from the world, we are able to see it and consider it. Being alive means being in a body, he writes, a body separated from all other bodies.
And being separated means being alone.
This, Tillich says, is true of every creature on the earth, but it is more true of man than any other creature, because he is not only alone; he knows that he is alone, just as he knows he is going to die.
The animals are spared this sense of self, they live in the now, not the future or the past. They don’t know that they are going to die, or that they are alone.
Loneliness is hard to endure – I learned that living alone on the first Bedlam Farm in Hebron, I was often lonely, I was alone for so much of the time.
But I also deeply felt the glory of solitude, as I did when I lived on Colfax Mountain for a year and wrote Running To The Mountain, accompanied by Thomas Merton’s journals and only by my two Yellow labs, Julius and Stanley. I’ve always needed to run off somewhere and be alone, that was – is – the only way I could ever figure out who I am.
Solitude is so different from loneliness, at least for me. Merton taught me that, he loved his hermitage so.
We all have a lonely place, and I need a lonely place.
Without solitude I have always felt that my life is in danger.
Without solitude, words lost their meaning for me. Without solitude, I lost any sense of who I was. Without solitude, I lied to myself, again and again. Tillich wrote that “without listening, speaking no longer heals, and without distance, closeness cannot cure.”
It is solitude that forms the basis for my spiritual life, there is life in action, and there is life in solitude, and I can no longer live in one without the other.
I couldn’t make it up that snowy hill now, and I wouldn’t drag any dog I know up there with me today. But in solitude I can grow old freely, without being preoccupied by usefulness or fame, I can offer services I never thought of or planned.
I feel I am losing all of my many dependencies on the world – mother, father, child, career, wealth and success – and life in a circle with very little to defend, and nothing much to covet. In this circle, I am learning to take the world seriously, but never too seriously.
When people laugh at me, I can laugh with them at myself.
And why not? I have little left to lose, I might as well be me.
I am no longer a slave to results other than the ones I impose on myself and that are caused by my love for Maria.
I have joined the fellowship of the weak and the humbled. I am not afraid any more, I am accepted there.