“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.” — Edward Gibbon
Henry David Thoereau (1817 – 1862) was an American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher.
But most people today know him as something else: the guy who spent 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days living alone in the woods, next to the Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
Based on his transcendental experience, Thoreau published the now-renowned book Walden.
Walden is many things. It’s a document of his life in the woods; a call for minimalism and self-sufficiency; a social experiment; and a lesson in solitude.
Solitude is not akin to loneliness, as you don’t choose the latter. Solitude is a state of mind. Solitude is learning to enjoy your own company (even when you’re amidst others); practice metacognition, and indulge (and have fun) with your thoughts. Thoreau, in his book, writes an entire chapter on this ideology.
“Some of the pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves. In those driving north-east rains which tried the village houses so, when the maids stood ready with mop and pail in front entries to keep the deluge out, I sat behind my door in my little house, which was all entry, and thoroughly enjoyed its protection.”
Thoreau didn’t just enjoy solitude; he passionately sought after it.
So reading Walden invokes a sense of romanticism around the idea of solitude.
However, this abstracts the fact that solitude is also incredibly hard.
Twenty One Pilots describe this well in their song “Car Radio” where the singer Josh Dun shares a memory of driving his car with a broken radio,
Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel
But, solitude is not hard because we’re incapable of it; it’s hard because we rarely get the chance to practice it.
Thoreau perceived his world in the 1800s as one filled with gossip, useless distractions, and meaningless connections. Now, what do we say about our current world then, where advertisements chase us everywhere, entertainment demands our attention, and distractions are the norm?
By social connection, I don’t mean the number of connections we have on Facebook or LinkedIn.
I refer to our capacity for connecting with people in real life; the number of meaningful conversations we have every week where we listen and feel heard; and the effort we put into maintaining our relationships.
Just like solitude, forming true social connections are hard.
I vividly remember a night from my senior year of undergrad. I had gone out to have dinner with half a dozen peers at the request of my roommate for her birthday. But, I had a poor relationship with half of the people at the dinner table and didn’t speak with them. I was quiet the entire night. There was a moment when, after dinner, standing amidst the crowd, I thought, “If I were to disappear right now, would anyone miss me here?” The pang of loneliness I felt that night is the barometer with which I’ve measured the rest of the lonely encounters in my life. That night pushed me into the depths of what loneliness feels like when you’re inches away from people. It showed me what it felt like to not be heard, loved, or cared for.
Maybe you too remember a time when you were sitting inches away from someone — your friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, or father — but have not felt farther apart from each other emotionally.
Maybe Thoreau’s departure to the woods partly came from his inability to find meaning in most social connections. In fact, he writes in one passage,
“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.”
But, just because it’s hard does not make it unworthy of a goal. In fact, if any goal were to give you a return on investment for the rest of your life, it would be forming true social connections.
Thoreau portrays social connection as antithetical to solitude. I don’t agree with that.
They’re not one or the other always.
Solitude can be felt when you’re sitting next to your best friend, contemplating in silence.
Social connection can be felt when you’re by yourself, to nature and the world around you.
Solitude is just as important as social connection. Both require intentional effort.
Personally, I try to identify activities that give me both solitude and social connection.
- Solitude comes from being in nature, spending a day in silence, traveling on a train, and the occasional psychedelic.
- Social connection comes from talking to people I love, and listening empathetically, (and also the occasional psychedelic).
And as with most things, it’s about establishing a balance between them.