The Genius of Solitude (How to be alone without being lonely)

I just finished editing a 19th century treatise on solitude; it raises a lot of deep issues on sustaining happiness that haven’t been raised before. There are a ton of short one-liners and quotes that sound smart and are really shareable (I’ve turned my favorites into image quotes; you can scroll down to see/share them).

This stuff isn’t available online yet, so you can be the first to share.

 

 

While exploring references for my PhD thesis on Paradise Lost, I stumbled across a little-known treatise on solitude by William R. Alger, a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, and was immediately impressed with the poetic beauty of the writing.

First published in 1867, the aesthetic flourishes and alliteration of the prose hearken to a time when literature was meant to be read aloud and savored. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clean copy, so I had the book scanned, transcribed, and have spent the past several years editing it. It was mostly a labor of love, meant for those who appreciate remarkable prose, but after completing the project, I am convinced it has more to offer than its title immediately suggests.

It is not, I discovered, only a recommendation of solitude; it is also an insightful and practical guide to creative happiness—or more acutely, an exploration of the root causes for the unhappiness that too frequently shadow those in creative vocations. Recently, at a business conference in Thailand, over a hundred entrepreneurs gathered to share their experiences with anxiety and depression.

When dealing with writers and artists, the most common questions revolve around questions of uncertainty, self-doubt, or even hopelessness. In my own practice, I’ve found the creative experience to necessarily straddle the line between certainty and the unknown: anyone determined to create what is rather than accept what is not will at times experience the exhilarating free-fall of pushing past the known and voyaging into uncharted waters. The modern abundance of personal choice and freedom, but with less certainty or direction than ever before, can be terrifying. As Kierkegaard notes, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

In recent history, the universality of mobile devices and near-constant barrage of social media updates keeps us in a state of high responsiveness, while also decreasing comfort and patience for real-world social interactions. People who live in the realm of dreams and inspiration, especially, often find it difficult to connect in emotionally significant ways with others.

And yet, while many creatives label themselves as socially awkward or inept at small-talk, and eagerly retreat into books, art or nature, they also have a lingering need for communal interaction; both to stoke the flames of their creative inspiration, but also so that they may share their ambitious efforts with someone appreciative.

This coming-and-going aspect of creative production, the need to be alone in studious contemplation, but also the anticipation of finishing and sharing the work with the admiring multitudes—the need for our creative work to matter in a significant way by affecting (hopefully positive) change—is a highly relevant, and previously unexplored subject.

But why do creative people so frequently live apart from the world, even while coveting closer relationships? Why do they seem to struggle more with anxiety and depression? If creativity is the panacea to the dreariness of the human condition, if art a balm for the weary soul, why do those who devote themselves to their respective crafts often have the hardest time sustaining happiness? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

 

Happiness for Creatives

William R. Alger introduces his book as a curative study in human isolation and solitude, and blames increased frequency of social influences as the main source of personal dissatisfaction. The issues he identified over 150 years ago have exponentially multiplied in recent history, creating what is sometimes referred to as “the Instagram effect.”

 

Now, by means of literature, newspapers, telegraphs, interlacing ties of business, travel, kindred, friendship, innumerable mutual interests, a sensitive genius lives constantly as it were in the ideal presence of all humanity. Public opinion is a reality as solid to him as the globe, its phenomena as influential as sunshine and darkness.

 

Probably no previous age was so rife as the present in interior discords, baffled longings, vast and vague sentiments whose indeterminateness is a generating source of misery. Probably there were never before so many restless and weary aspirants, out of tune with their neighbors, dissatisfied with their lot, unsettled in their faith, morbidly sensitive, sad, and solitary.

 

His comments remain insightful, even though he could not have imagined the amount of time and effort we spend curating the idealized lifestyle of our online avatars. In the section on the Uses of Solitude, he rants against the proliferation of mirrors (the disruptive technology of his time):

The endless multiplicity of competition in modern society, at every point a prize, at every point a glass — tends to force us inordinately on our own notice. If we could but gaze at the prize alone, and break or blink the glass!

 

What would he have thought about our rampant need for likes and comments on our daily selfies or status updates? When everything is visible, public, seen, constantly demand for attention, the gift of solitude—and its appreciation—is increasingly rare. So a book encouraging readers to seek out and find solace in slow moments of blissful, solitary inactivity, is well received.

 

To make a true estimate of what the trouble is with these victims of self-love and the social struggle, to give them sound sanitary directions, explaining the causes of their wounds, and the best curative treatment, we cannot but think will be a service of especial timeliness.

 

But the book goes further, and offers a remedy for creative unhappiness and isolation that is thorough and insightful. This argument can be summarized as follows:

First, that especially creative and intelligent people, who see the world differently, may have trouble communicating or expressing themselves and being understood, which leads to solitude and possibly loneliness or depression:

 

 

The most royal souls of the race, who so truly love and honor their fellowmen as to sacrifice everything selfish for their good, are either feared as dangerous innovators and persecuted as wicked heretics, or neglected to die of want and heart-break.

 

This isolation may not be a deliberate choice, it’s just that as we get deeper into a creative vocation that excites us, most of which are solitary endeavors, the fewer people will understand our passions or sympathize with our challenges. “It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar; and, when we soar, the company grows thinner and thinner, till there is none at all.”

Second, that by openly sharing and discussing such feelings of isolation and loneliness, we can see that they are not personal defects, but common to creative individuals. This normalizes the experience of wrestling with our doubts and insecurities, which can reduce feelings of shame or powerlessness.

 

Nothing can be more blessedly solacing and sedative for the overwrought champion of the arena than contemplation of the inner drama of those delicate and listening minds, those deep and dreamy hearts, who pass their days in an ideal sphere detached from the intoxicating prizes of outward life, far from the bewildering roar of the world.

 

Hence, the second half of this book is filled with specific historical examples, as sketches of lonely characters. And while these vignettes are at times wanting (the short section on Boethius, for example, seems especially rushed), Alger’s own comments are surprisingly profound.

My biggest complaint is that some of the most insightful comments are strewn through the book and hidden in otherwise unremarkable passages. Some of the greatest ideas are found only in the final conclusion, and lack clarity. After reading through the book several times, I have attempted a summary of the main points, which are as follows.

 

The Three Orders of Wretchedness

Using specific examples, Alger identifies the roots of creative unhappiness; what he calls the “three orders of wretchedness.”

1. I have nothing to live for!

The first challenge is finding a worthwhile purpose or goal. The meaning of life, if there is one, is to make life meaningful. As Goethe writes:

 

According to Alger, the true zest of life is an absorbing object.

 

A man with a mighty purpose finds room and leisure and invitations in it for his imagination to work and react until all the centres of association, the batteries of his mind, are charged with magnetic ideas.

 

He also writes, “Happiness is the successful pursuit of an aim.” But this leads to the second challenge: how do we choose?

 

 

2. If I could wish, I could do!

How do you know which project has merit? How do you find time for creative pursuits, when you’re already overwhelmed with responsibilities? Maybe you feel driven to some greater purpose, but you have no idea what it is or how to get started. According to Alger:

 

The greater the number of the interests a man carries, and the greater the number of external relations he sustains, the more delicate and arduous becomes the problem of harmonizing them, fulfilling his duties, and satisfying his desires.

 

Unfortunately, there is no universal cure for indecision, and nobody can tell you what to do with your life. However, any decision is better than indecision. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Given the importance of #1, the best advice is to choose something that fascinates or excites you, and commit to it.

 

Force enough is wasted in the sterile chatter of conceited criticism to produce much of permanent worth, if it were converted into creative meditation… We have superabundant impulse, but little patience. It is all come-and-go, and no stay.

 

 

 

3. Why should I wish? I could not do!

This third one is the most frequently met by creatives: the disparity between our personal ability and our creative vision. Skills are developed over time, and budding creatives are commonly frustrated by their inability to express, communicate or capture their ideas.

Mastery takes time and determination. Many creatives give up too early, unwilling or unable to bear the harsh truth that they aren’t as good as they think they are; that they aren’t able to do this, not cut out for this. In order to become proficient at something, first you have to suck—and continue to produce badly, without judgment. This can jar uncomfortably with the ideal of ourselves that we have, when our best efforts are so far below our ideal ambitions.

happiness imagination quote

 

When great faculties have no correspondent desires to animate and use them; also when great energies have no adequate motives and guides.

 

But remember, happiness is the successful pursuit of an aim. Not necessarily the completion. I’ve actually found, most creatives experience a form of postpartum depression after a long-term project is completed.

 

There are the sufferings of desire deprived of power, the sufferings of power deprived of desire, the sufferings of disappointed passion baffled in its aims, and the sufferings of disenchanted passion finding nothing worthy of its efforts.

 

Alger uses the example of Maurice de Guerin to illustrate the frustration of sensitive souls,

 

Too rich to be insensible to the wealth and loveliness of the universe, too poor to be able to grasp and fix the divine shapes in solid forms of art, he was torn between aspiration and weakness, will and want.

 

The disparity between skill and attempt leads to dissatisfaction, frustration, and unhappiness; the solution is not to quit, but to improve in studious isolation. Happiness comes from developing skill and proficiency, until you reach the point where you can be proud of your efforts. “Superiority to the averages of attainment gives common natures an assured self-complacency that makes them happy.”

 

He who aims at perfection, going out and up in thought and feeling from his defects to its standards, will be happy. He who aims at fame, coming down in thought and feeling from his rich desires to the poor facts, will be miserable.

 

Perfection is the grandest of aims, and the only one in which a continuous success is morally possible for all.

The tricky part here, is measuring the averages of attainment, which implies social comparison or competition. The main thing is the mood or disposition with which you consider your peers (either you are a loving part of a supportive community, or you become embittered by isolation).

 

A feeling of superiority to others, with love and honor for them, is the ground of complacency and a condition of chronic happiness. A feeling of superiority to others, with alienation from them and hate for them, is the sure condition of perturbations and unhappiness.

 

This dance between solitude and society is the moral underpinning of the book. Isolation can lead to negative thoughts, navel-gazing egotism, envy and bitterness. Getting lost in our own personal experiences, the ecstasies of melancholy and rapture, can only lead to loneliness. True happiness is coming back to society, having someone to share it with, working towards the good and benefit, to be of service, to focus on helping others. As Channing writes:

 

I try in solitude to keep up my interest in my fellow-creatures; and my happiness, when alone, is found in labors for their improvement.

 

“The true destiny of man,” according to Alger, “is the fruition of the functions of his being, the purest and fullest exercise of his faculties, in their due order, in internal unity and in external harmony.” He claims there are two fundamental pieces to sustained happiness. On the side of individuality, the need for self-respect and the consuming focus of an important task. On the side of society, living “by the sympathy of love in the blessings of others.”

 

 

 

The book will be up on Amazon next week! I’ll email out the link and add it here when it’s ready. In the meantime, if you like any of these quotes or graphics. Please share! I think it’s time for a book on happiness that isn’t just glib positive affirmations, but deep reflection and poetry (there is a kind of beautiful darkness in exploring the deeper realms of depression, and expressing those emotions, without banishing them away with pills and platitudes.)

I made a bunch of image quote graphicsclick here to see them, then share your favorite!

 

More quotes I love…

          

 

I made a bunch of image quote graphics – click the images below to see them, then share your favorite!

 

 

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