Finding (Public) Solitude

I’ve been thinking lately about “solitude” and what it means and where we find it. Maybe it’s because so many people I know feel under the gun, rushing around trying to make their organizations, their jobs – indeed, their lives – work. All this busyness can produce the desire to retreat or hunker down. But solitude is not about that; rather it’s a way to deeply connect with the individual and public lives we lead. I’ve long been interested in language and its implications for community and public life. For instance, I’ve looked at the connection between “grace” and one’s public work, as well as notions of “devotion” and “civic faith” and “hope” and the relationship between “imagination and reality.” Each word or phrase holds special meaning for us in our public efforts, and special implications for what we say and do.

“Solitude” is no different. So, my first question for you is: “Where do you find ‘solitude’ in your life?” I already noted that I don’t think of solitude as being about escaping from others, from our troubles, from our work, but rather a stillness that enables us to hear ourselves, to return to our essence, to regain a sense of our bearings. To escape would mean to run away from others, even ourselves; solitude is about turning toward ourselves.

When people think about where they find solitude, they often talk about the “space” they are able to create or enter. In such space, they tell me, a shift in consciousness occurs that enables them to gain a different perspective, to discover a new take on things. This shift enables each of us to see and hear ourselves again.

But there is an important difference at work here between being alone and being lonely, much like there is a difference between being with yourself and removing yourself from others. One person said to me recently that their most intense and meaningful moments of solitude occur in noisy cafes. Perhaps it is the comfort of being around others that gives this person the ability to gain solitude. What about you?

My next question for you is: “How do you connect your solitude and what emerges from it to your unfolding life?” We live in, or through, time; this is different from simply occupying space at any given moment. Our lives, our work, our emotions are created over the course of time, through experiences, connections, iterations – and pure chance. If this is true, which I believe it is, then how do you connect your moments of solitude over time?

This leads me to one last point, which is about solitude and your relationship to community and public life. When we think of solitude it’s easy to think about it in terms of ourselves. We do it by ourselves, even if we are sitting among others in that café; and it is often our own small voice that we hear whisper to us in the silence of solitude. But one beauty of solitude is that by reconnecting with ourselves we are opening up the possibilities to connect with others. By turning toward ourselves, we make ourselves able and willing to turn toward the other. When we reclaim our urge to do good – to be good – we rediscover that we can only achieve this with others.

We must make room for solitude so that we can remember who we are, and why we must be in relationship with others to create the world we want.