My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
Perhaps for many, the journey of solitude begins with the discovery that he or she is actually happier when alone than with other people. It is probably rarely an “all or nothing” encounter with self, but rather it develops as a growing realization of who we really are.
Some people thrive in the company of others. And they don’t have to be the life and soul of a party to want to be around other people. We all have that to some extent – human beings are social animals after all. Some people want and need to be amongst other people, even if they don’t talk a lot. There’s an energy and a buzz that’s shared. When someone like this spends time alone – which they may do for odd hours from time to time – they find that their energy winds down. Half a day alone and they need to be with other people to get recharged.
Some other people are exactly the opposite. For example, I myself am not anti-social and have many friends. But a couple of hours with anyone is usually enough for me to be looking to be alone again. Even with someone I really like, even deeply love, the need to be alone never goes away. Instead, it’s that period of solitude that gives me the energy to be open to others.
This is classically described as “introvert” and “extrovert” but I suspect these words are inaccurate because each lumps together at least two qualities that are different.
“Need to be alone” and the “capacity for introspection” may overlap but they are surely not the same. When I’m painting or cleaning I prefer to be alone but my thoughts are hardly introverted. During a retreat, one can be in a hall full of people yet enjoy profund introspection.
Likewise, “needing company”, not wanting to be alone, does not necessarily make a person “extrovert”. Every extrovert needs an audience – often quieter individuals who would no sooner choose solitude than a hermit would choose a cocktail party.
So the desire for deeper solitude may begin as a small discovery about oneself – that we need time alone to recharge. Yet its implication and consequence can be profound. Of course, a need for occasional solitude does not make anyone a hermit, nor necessarily take a person along that path. For most people, a little time alone is a way of balancing the time immersed with other people.
However, in my own exeprience, it has been the repeated realization that I am more myself when alone than when I’m with other people that has gradually lead me deeper and with more confidence into solitude. After even just a few days alone, I find that I think of other people with much more love than I do when I’m with people all the time. After a few days alone, I smile more, listen more, laugh more, am less judgmental, and flow more easily with what’s going on. Away from people I become much more concerned for their welfare; when I’m with people I often just want to escape.
When I’m with people, alas to say that the humanity newly recovered in solitude, does not last long. Soon I’m talking too much again – projecting “me”, reacting to the ways people are reacting to me. We’re playing a game again and no longer being ourselves. So then I retire and a few hours later begin to feel settled again. A few days later, I may feel sufficiently centred to imagine it’s safe to venture out again, only to discover that the social conventions, the learned patterns, the need to present a “face” have overwhelmned me again and that I am relating to other people as social beings not human beings.
Most people are content to taste solitude just briefly and from time to time. For a very few, solitude beckons more and more until the call becomes irresistible. Then they must decide either to try to be as happy as they can be in the world, or to take the risks, live with their doubts and strike out on their own. In my experience, there is no right or wrong, and a person may return to the same moment of decision several times before committing wholeheartedly to their choice.
Indeed, a whole lifetime may pass with that decision being repeatably delayed. In my own case, that is part of what impels me now. After decades of “being in the world” and tasting an awful lot of what it has to offer, it’s time now to set aside distractions and doubt and to commit to the life I have always known was truly my own.