These past weeks I have been mulling over the need for solitude. Why do we need it? When do we need it? Does everyone need it? What do we even mean by solitude? What do I mean? Sometimes we stumble across something so obvious it catches us by surprise. Perhaps it is something we once knew but have lost track of. Perhaps it is recognition of something we’ve grown accustomed to existing below the surface, just out of reach of consciousness, just beyond words. We need words to make things visible, to make a sensation, a thought, communicable. This is obvious. And yet there is a path to what seems obvious, which it is easy to forget. Walking that path reminds us why something is important.
Here are two definitions of “thoughtful”:
1) Given to careful thought; reflective. Engrossed in thought.
2) Having or showing heed for the well-being or happiness of others and a propensity for anticipating their needs or wishes.
The definitions are distinct; and the circumstances can exist independently. And yet they each rely on the other. Like husband and wife; like parent and child (child and parent); like two sides of one’s self. If one is gone too long, the other suffers.
I have lost track of whether it is a truism that a parent needs time to herself in order to look after others. Is this so obvious it no longer needs saying? Has it been said too much? And yet we forget. We need time to reflect, in order to reflect (back) what others need. This is not to say a parent needs (only) to go think about her children; but rather she needs time to think, to let the brain wander, in order to return to others. Of course this is true of writers. Perhaps this is why we write, because we need so much solitude, so much time for reflection; perhaps we need it in order to write. It’s the old chicken or the egg question. But writers are not unique in this, even if we employ it differently.
In February, The New York Times Book Review ran a review of a book on introverts, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. (Now you can see how long I’ve been sitting on this post. Coverage has continued.) Judith Warner, the reviewer, in the end cared little for the book; she found it overbearing, perhaps even too heedful and laudatory of the introvert personality; the author overstating the embattlement of introverts in contemporary life. Warner’s discussion was engaging; and at least for this reader a reminder of things I’d forgotten.
As a child, I not infrequently described myself as shy. I believed it; and yet I also understood that there was something inconsistent with this external descriptor when it came to my inner self. Though I often seemed quiet and withdrawn to those around me, I somewhere realized that this was not how I experienced myself on the inside. And indeed I was far less quiet with those who knew me well. I read voraciously until high school, when schoolwork and some tick of adolescence I still haven’t fully analyzed shunted books to the side too much; certainly they weren’t driven entirely away, but they were able to hold onto less space.
I continued to be “shy” through college and into my twenties. Then my father died, when I was twenty-three, and something began to shift. Not suddenly. Grief may hit in one big wallop, at first, but the lasting changes it is capable of producing are more gradual. By my later twenties I had learned, through repetition, that a question about my master’s thesis, or later the book I was working on, or about my father—a question that would result in the word “suicide” emerging, brought out by me—wasn’t going to kill me with embarrassment or a surfeit of attention. Gradually I forgot I was shy. And then, gradually, I forgot too that I am an introvert. Introversion and shyness had grown synonymous for me. So, if not one, then not the other too.
Since having children, I “beg, borrow, and steal” to find time for myself—which has become synonymous for me with time for writing. It took this random review about introverts (and therefore, Cain’s book) to remind me why I need this quiet time—and even to re-validate it for myself. People come in different stripes, as it were, with different quirks and needs. My stripe is introverted (is that a deep purple? a charcoal grey?). But even extroverts need a moment to catch their breath.
It is sometimes annoying, even frustrating, to need to be by one’s self (a state which is actually possible with others around—while reading a book, while sitting in a café—but more difficult if those others are intimates rather than strangers). If we demand, or take, time without anyone, then it follows that we are not with each specific person who gives us pleasure in his presence. By now, we all know there simply is not enough time…so in allocating time we see and feel what we are not doing as painfully, sometimes even more painfully, as the pleasure with which we can engage in what we have chosen or been given.
It is difficult to remember that thoughtfulness, in both senses, requires solitude; even more difficult to demand it. In order to look after others, to be considerate, we need time for reflection (time for self), time to think. The need for solitude feels selfish, un-valuable. When, in fact, it is invaluable. And not just for introverts.
Hanif Kureishi makes a related argument in an Opinion piece for The New York Times, “The Art of Distraction“: sometimes we need to do one thing in order to do something else. I take issue with part of how Kureishi gets there—he slams Ritalin as an annihilator of thought; suggesting that if we kill the brain’s need to wander, we kill off creativity. While I believe wholeheartedly in the value of a wandering brain (off-topic is sometimes more on than we think), an inability to focus is not the same thing as allowing the mind to wander. Control can be wrested from the thinker such that intervention may return the ability to think, rather than remove it. Modern pharmacology, when used responsibly (dare I say thoughtfully), has the ability to save lives, both literally and figuratively, and to improve their quality, sometimes drastically. But back to the sound points in Kureishi’s piece.
I appreciate Kureishi’s reminder that avoiding what some inner instinct may press upon us (room for thought, say), can prove more detrimental than following that original need: “many people have spent their lives being distracted, keeping away, often unknowingly, from that which they most want, thus brewing in themselves a poison of disappointment, bitterness and despair.” People have different abilities and strengths, which Kureishi illustrates with the rudimentary nature of his own jump-roping skills (a recently acquired evening activity) in contrast with his son’s fancy twists and turns of the rope, while singing no less. He uses this same son’s difficulty in learning to read, belatedly given a diagnosis of dyslexia, as an odd stepping-stone into his arguments about medication (Ritalin) and creativity. He expresses relief at the diagnosis of dyslexia but then belittles it. I too am a writer. I too have a son who showed early difficulty with reading, and received a diagnosis of dyslexia. Certainly we don’t want our children to be defined by their “deficits” but early pinpointing of a problem, particularly with dyslexia (for which different reading strategies can make a huge difference), allows for assistance. And too often we perceive deficits without similar acknowledgement of accompanying strengths. (For one such argument, see “The Upside of Dyslexia,” by Annie Murphy Paul in the NYT; and the Letters that followed.)
Returning to the “thoughtfulness” with which I began this piece, the value—the necessity even—of time for the mind to roam (now that we’ve roamed into Kureishi’s other arguments), here is Kureishi again:
In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself—if he is, as it were, on his own side….
I like to think of it as the family—or social—ecosystem. With one out of harmony (or, better yet, in), the others soon follow suit.
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Happy Memorial Day, day of remembering. This day of loss has become a marker of summer’s beginning. We associate summer with time of greater light, movement, rest from some of our cares. Inconsistent as these two meanings seem – day for remembering the dead (originally, and still most prevalently, veterans) and day for beginning vacation and time of light – they are less incongruous than they first appear. Remembering, in times of loss, is about sadness and grief; also it is about memories of joy, gifts of a person’s presence.
This week I’ve been saddened by the losses of friends, death arriving too soon, in one case by suicide. I am reminded of how horrible and numbed those early days of grief are. I am reminded of the many phases that follow, moods shifting, sometimes too suddenly. And I am reminded that it truly does get easier; that we grow from hardship; that pleasures return; and that, even when some memories contain sadness, the act of remembering can in itself be cathartic, joyful, comforting.
During this long weekend, may each of us find the activity, communion, or solitude we need.
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~ If the next post is slow in coming, please poke around in the archives. A few places to start… ~
- Tell me a story—about war
- Remembering—who we are
- When you open a door—night visions with Kafka or Beckett
- See that my brain—a suicide note’s mixed message
- Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read
- How Madoff the younger became my kin
- “My Father’s Guns, Part 1”
- What we want to say—when someone else is grieving
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