Opinion

When being alone offers solitude, not loneliness | The Latte Guy | July 10

I was walking down Madison Avenue last Saturday afternoon on my way to Waterfront Park to listen to a little post-parade music. As I walked along, surrounded by what appeared to be every man, woman, child, and half the canine population of the island, I couldn’t help but marvel at the job that the Chamber of Commerce’s Kevin Dwyer and all the many volunteers did to once again put on a spectacular Grand Olde Fourth of July Celebration.

And as much as I enjoyed the sustained exercise in fun and community celebration, the other thing I was thinking was: “I wonder what Ansuman Biswas is doing right now?”

As I’m sure everyone knows, Ansuman Biswas was the lucky bloke selected from among 300 applicants to spend 40 days in isolation in a Gothic Tower that is part of the England’s Manch-ester Museum. According to the BBC’s report of this event, Mr. Biswas will spend his 40 days contemplating “things lost” and reflecting on the global and spiritual impact of extinction.

The BBC said Mr. Biswas will have no human contact during his 40-day stay, although the report did note that, as part of what the museum director described as its “ultimate live exhibit,” Mr. Biswas will provide regular reports to the outside world through an Internet blog.

Putting aside for a moment the philosophical question of whether a person connected to the outside world by the Internet can truly be considered in any meaningful way to be “isolated,” I found myself envying Mr. Biswas and his self-imposed but temporary exile from the rat race.

I think the envy I felt was a symptom of what Garrison Keillor diagnosed as PMSS, (Personal Male Secrecy Syndrome), a common male disorder characterized by an overwhelming desire to climb a tree and sit on a high limb for a few hours, or go for a long drive with no destination and no company except for the radio or a favorite CD.

As Keillor points out in defense of all those similarly afflicted, there is nothing wrong or odd about wanting to be alone from time to time. One can love company and conversation, and also love uncompany and silence. Wise men through the ages have extolled the virtues of a little seclusion and silence as a means of recharging the psychic batteries and jump-starting the creative process.

Wasn’t it Henry David Thoreau who said that he never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude? And didn’t Voltaire say that the happiest of all lives is a busy solitude?

It’s easy to confuse the heady, intoxicating wine of solitude with the bitter tonic of loneliness, of course. As the great philosopher Paul Tillich pointed out, it’s interesting that our language has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone and the similar word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.

It is also important if one is in a marital relationship that one’s spouse understands and supports a man in the throes of a severe case of PMSS, and not mistake the innocent desire for a little alone time with a lack of interest in the conjugal life. Fortunately for me, the woman who is my wife has a high tolerance for my many quirks.

It helps that whenever I feel the need for a little down time, I’m not inclined to travel to a distant desert cave or a remote wilderness hideout, but instead take myself out to the back yard where I occupy my hands with utilitarian tasks while my mind wanders on the breeze to wherever it is inclined to go. The result is not just that I come back to earth refreshed and revived, but when I get there, the lawn is mowed, the tree stump is dug out, and the garden is weeded.

Thoreau also said that he always had a great deal of company in his house, particularly in the morning when nobody came calling. I feel that way about being alone.

If you’re really doing it right, you’re never more connected to the world than when you’re alone in it. That’s either a paradox or a dichotomy. Maybe I’ll see if Mr. Biswas has some time to look up the difference for me.

Tom Tyner is an attorney for the Trust for Public Land. He is author of “Skeletons From Our Closet,” a collection of writings on the island’s latte scene.

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