Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Importance of Being Alone

In what concerns you much, do not think that you have companions; know that you are alone in the world.
—Henry David Thoreau

Some days even the dog is too much company. To walk up the mountain with someone, human or canine, is to have a companion for the duration of the hike. To go alone is to have the world as a companion. Company can be more distraction than comfort. Walking alone sharpens the senses, opens one's perceptions to the rest of the world. Alone it is possible to converse with the whole reality, and to hear its quiet messages.

Our tolerance for alone-ness and silence (its usual companion), may determine the quality of our experience with the mountain. After all, how much of the noise that surrounds us is made by our fellow humans? Walking alone removes some of that noise and may even quiet the voices in our heads—making room for the soft voices of creation to reach us: The wind in pine trees, the rustle of dry leaves on poison ivy stems, a distant bird-chirp or lizard-scuttle dashing from bush to bush.

Absence of companions may be considered positive or negative, may be called either loneliness or solitude; but for absence of noise we have only positive connotations: silence, quiet, stillness, calm, lull, serenity, hushed, peaceful…

Perhaps our ability to distinguish the ache of loneliness from the poignant joy of solitude, and experience both as appropriate, measures us individually and collectively. We live in a world that offers few opportunities for solitude or silence. Are aloneness and silence voids we must hasten to fill, even when we can only fill them inadequately? Or can we learn to appreciate them for the rare opportunity they are—the opportunity to experience the incredible fact that we are never alone in this world?

How many more generations will pass
before it will have become nearly impossible
to be alone even for an hour, to see anywhere
nature as she is without man's improvements upon her?
How long will it be before—what is perhaps worse yet—
there is no quietness anywhere, no escape from
the rumble and the crash, the clank and the screech
which seem to be the inevitable accompaniment of technology?
Whatever man does or produces, noise seems to be
an unavoidable by-product. Perhaps he can,
as he now tends to believe, do anything.
But he cannot do it quietly.

Perhaps when the time comes that there is no more silence
and no more aloneness, there will also be no longer
anyone who wants to be alone.

—Joseph Wood Krutch

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Originally written 1989.

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