On Solitude


All around the world, for the first time in any of our lifetimes, humanity as a whole is suffering over the same thing.

The CCP virus is forcing a fundamental change in how we interact with our communities, regardless of race, religion, sex, or nationality. Social distancing is forcing us into an isolated life that few of us are familiar with, in the name of the greater good.

We’ve all become accustomed to the illusion of 24/7 connection with the entire world through our digital devices. This crisis is exposing us to the reality of how much we took for granted with regular contact in “meatspace,” as well as how uncomfortable we have become with quiet moments of solitude.

Man, by his very nature, is not a solitary creature. Yes, some of us are more introverted than our peers or even describe ourselves as loners. However, those are all choices that we make at our own convenience.

When we are thrust into isolation, we must learn how to cope with the silence and solitude of our “new normal.” The problem that many of us are discovering is that we have lost the ability to exist in silence, without constant stimulation. We have forgotten how to translate boredom into contemplation; this is a problem.

One of the most famous monks in the modern world was Thomas Merton, a Trappist priest and author. He warned the world of the dangers it would soon face if humanity as a whole forgot how to not just be comfortable in solitude, but also to actively embrace it:

“When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, then society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

The current state of quarantines, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place orders may very well be an opportunity to rediscover how to thrive in solitude. Just being alone isn’t enough; we have to develop the proper mindset. Or as Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote, “What profits solitude of the body, if solitude of the heart be lacking?” We need to be okay without background noise; we need to be comfortable in our “boredom.”

This isn’t to say that we all need to head out to the desert to live out the rest of our days in isolation. At the same time, we also need to quit pretending that this is what we are all being forced to do right now. If you want to take the easy route and self-medicate with an ever-lasting supply of brain-dulling and soul-numbing digital entertainment, we live in an era where you can access almost every movie, song, and book with a click on your smartphone.

If you’re claiming you’re “suffering” from extreme boredom, you’re lying to yourself. What you’re grappling with is a hunger for meaningful human interaction. This is not a wrong desire; however, the manner in which we view solitude has become extremely disordered.

Again, Thomas Merton: “It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard. The words of the proud man impose silence on all others, so that he alone may be heard. The humble man speaks only in order to be spoken to.”

I believe that our modern aversion to solitude is rooted is our disdain for silence, both around us and in us. We don’t want external stimulation to stop, because we don’t want to be forced to commune with ourselves as we truly are.

Even our desire for human contact and community has become distorted, as we view those we interact with as a commodity: “What do they offer me so I don’t have to be alone and uncomfortable?” This current crisis may be the opportunity we need to use this forced isolation to grow more comfortable with solitude, so that we may come out on the other side stronger for this struggle, rather than broken by it.

There’s a very real likelihood that we’re going to continue to see social distancing encouraged and expanded shelter-in-place orders from our governments. Be proactive in embracing quiet moments of reflection; embrace the contemplative life. Allow the silence to wash over you as you allow the noise and distraction to fade away. Learn to meditate and learn to pray.

When you feel yourself getting bored, allow it; don’t reach for your smartphone and chase it away as you pursue the narcotic effects of an endless scroll. Read something challenging and then reflect upon it. Be present with the people you live with for the sole purpose of being present; resist turning your interactions with them into transactions.

When you learn how to exist in solitude, you will perfect that way in which you exist in the world with your fellow man.

I’ll leave you with a final word from Merton: “A man becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary.”

Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret, with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. You can follow him on Twitter @EricksonPrime.

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Author: Chris Erickson