Embracing Solitude

Could you live the eremitic life, either in the Christian meaning of the word, or in the secular sense?

In both religious and secular literature, the eremitic life is lived by a ‘hermit’, a person who, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, lives in solitude as a part of a religious discipline, or who intentionally shuns society.

AnchoressThe  female equivalent of a hermit is the anchoress. In my first post I mentioned Robyn Cadwallader’s début novel, set in 1255, about a young woman, Sarah, who is walled into a cell nine by seven paces, and these are the paces of a slight girl, where she intends to spend the rest of her life. After many difficulties, both internally and externally generated, Sarah  adjusts to her life as an anchoress. She is not entirely isolated, however. From her cell she ministers to the women of her local village, playing a small but vital part in the life of the people who live close to the church where she is immured.

Hermits are generally reclusive, solitary, characters found in all religious traditions. The modern image of a hermit is of an ascetic or eccentric elder, alone on a mountain or in a forest, meditating, growing their own vegetables and bothering no one. Hermit_maleA quick Google search revealed this image to be only partially true, particularly in the case of Sister Rachel Denton who stays in touch with the world via Facebook and Twitter.

I’m not sure I want to become a hermit, but the solitude, the extended stretches of time and the ability to decide for oneself how to spend that time is very appealing. How would I fill my days? Writing, of course. I’d make up for lost time, pumping out as many stories as possible. Then there is reading; the cliché that there are too many books and too little time is spot on. My to-be-read pile of books will probably outlive me. I’d walk every day, not power walking but strolling, being present to birdsong, to the  gentle chuntering of the leaves as they respond to their conductor, the wind.  I’m also of an age to reflect on my life, to weigh and measure my accomplishments and forgive my failures. I’d also meditate. I’d silence the inner chatter, breathe, honour and refresh my neurons and soothe the synaptic clefts tucked away in my brain.

Is the eremitic life a selfish life?  Hermit_femaleThat’s like asking if awakening the inner self is a selfish act, for in a sense that’s what hermits are exposed to, their inner self. They might study devotional tracts or scriptures, they might nourish the land they live on but when the sun sets, their companion of choice is the being who was with them at the beginning and will be there at the very last: the voice in their head; their consciousness; their inner being. It takes, I believe, a certain kind of courage to deeply and honestly connect with one’s self. What we find is a complicated, seething consciousness: complex and simple; wise and foolish; generous and selfish; peace loving and aggressive; kind and cruel; honest and corrupt; decisive and irresolute; knowledgeable and pudding headed and all things in-between. How many of us are willing to risk knowing who we really are?

Right now, I’d settle for one or two days of solitude a week. I’ve already confronted many inner weaknesses and faults, even accommodated and embraced a couple of them, though I am positive there are more lurking within. I’d willingly turn off the television, the radio and the internet and be with my self. Nor would I worry about being selfish because I think knowing and accepting one’s self is the first step to knowing and accepting  others. After all, if we can live with the madness and glory that is the self, then spending time with our loved ones should be simple. For now, however, I am satisfied with Emerson’s recommendation:

Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other. The conditions are met if we keep our independence, yet do not lose our sympathy.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Solitude and Society, 1857

I have my small sanctuary, a physical space where I write, but as most writers know it’s the space in one’s head that must be nurtured. I am slowly creating that inner space, a mental mountaintop where I withdraw and nourish the word-smith within.

Do you want more time with yourself? Do you want to devote your day to the scriptures or to similar works of the learned and wise? What do you need to know that a few day’s solitude might reveal? Would you remove yourself from the madding crowd and listen to the inner voice?

14 thoughts on “Embracing Solitude

  1. Is the eremitic life a selfish life? That’s like asking if awakening the inner self is a selfish act… I’ve had people imply that in conversations with me. It always makes me wonder what THEY are wary of. It has frustrated me from time to time.

    It takes, I believe, a certain kind of courage to deeply and honestly connect with one’s self. What we find is a complicated, seething consciousness: complex and simple; wise and foolish; generous and selfish; peace loving and aggressive; kind and cruel; honest and corrupt; decisive and irresolute; knowledgeable and pudding headed and all things in-between. How many of us are willing to risk knowing who we really are? And why do we seem weird when we want to KNOW who we are?

    …knowing and accepting one’s self is the first step to knowing and accepting others. And that right there is the reason I began looking inward, because as harshly as I judged others, I was even harder on myself. The only way to change that was to learn to love who I was. Then I could love others for who they were.

    Marvelous, meaningful post, Janet.


    1. Thank you so much, Calen, particularly the bit about us (yo and I) being weird for wanting to know who we are. There is an old Jewish saying from the Talmud: ‘An unexamined dream is like an unopened letter from God.’ I feel the same way about an unexamined life. I know we’re here to connect, to help others, the enjoy the beauty that is our little rock in space, but I also think we’re here to learn how to be human and the best way, I think, to do that is to spend quality time with ourselves. And yes, I was, and in some ways still am, harder on myself than on others. Learning to love myself means I’ve come to understand and cherish those around me. None of us is perfect, but is perfection what we really want?
      You have sparked of a whole set of new thoughts. Thank you! 🙂 Janet


    1. Thank you Marsha. I enjoyed writing it. In an odd way it made me think about what’s important to me, what I’m willing to give up to get the solitude I need and what I want to retain.


  2. A few day’s solitude would definitely bring out the self doubt/ insecurity monsters in me. I write in the front office space in my house. The room has no doors, so my family are constantly back and for (what are you writing? do you want a cup of tea? etc) On the days when I am alone (all in work, school, uni) I can go a couple of hours of reading/researching, but after that I miss human contact and feel isolated. Also I have to have the TV on in the background, which makes me feel that someone is at home. I love writing, but this part of it I don’t care for. Love your post 🙂


    1. I had a friend who worked on her novel while sitting outside the local cafeteria, Suzanne, so I understand what you’re saying. I am trying to train myself to do that, and I do like writing in different environments. I often move from my writing room to the family room to the courtyard because the change of view stimulates me. I like it to be quiet, however. I think my need for solitude might have originated from spending most of my life in a classroom surrounded by twenty to thirty (or more) other minds, bodies and souls. I think it’s important that we do what we need to do so the words flow. 🙂 Thanks for your comments.

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      1. I like the library; there is the feeling of solitude, but the knowledge that other people are there too. Even a quiet murmur in the background helps ( but not when there’s a play morning at the library!) I also move around the house, it is good for stimulating the mind – anything to get the creative juices flowing! 🙂


    1. Yes, Raili, I’ve tried to go away on three different occasions a decade and a half ago but they weren’t successful experiences. The places I organised were in very remote areas. Two years ago my son, who lives in Perth but is a FIFO (fly in, fly out) in northern WA, offered me a chance to stay at his place for a fortnight to work on my thesis. For nine of those days I was utterly alone and perfectly safe. The days were wonderful and I completed a good chunk of my manuscript; the nights were terrible. Every sound, every car driving by, spooked me. I laugh at it now, but I should have noted in my post that solitude during the days is what I crave. At night it’s nice to have some one around. Then again, I lived alone for two years before I met my partner and very quickly adjusted to solitary nights. That was in a unit one floor up, though. I figured if anyone wanted to climb the very noisy metal staircase or scale the walls and try to break in was a fool and I’d deal with them fairly easily. Now, when I occasionally spend nights alone, I tell myself my ‘writerly’ (if I can put it that way) imagination is just too fertile to leave me in peace!

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      1. When TRH goes away – like he is prone to do from time to time sailing or road trips – my little fur baby joins me in bed. She has a VERY loud bark so I figure she would wake me up if anything untoward happens. And it’s a comfort to have a breathing warm body next to me 🙂


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