Photo credit: Christopher Anderson Magnum Photos
Spending time alone makes us smarter and more creative. Too bad we’ll never do it.
Now, perhaps more than ever before in my lifetime — with all the shouting in the streets, the Twitter tantrums, the rapid extinction of facts — seems like a good time to escape. To leave the world behind for a while. To be alone.
Many people have envisioned such a withdrawal; I know I have. But can a person actually do it?
The short answer is no. And it’s not because of jobs and children and responsibilities. Even if, by some miracle, you were given a grant to get away from it all — a caretaker for the kids, a paid holiday from work — you likely still wouldn’t go, at least not by yourself.
Humans aren’t wired, emotionally or physiologically, to be alone. It’s possible that the very reason we exist at all is because of teamwork. Evolutionary biologists believe that early humans thrived, despite being slower and weaker than other animals, because of their exceptional ability to work together. Unwanted loneliness can make you sick: social isolation is as damaging as high blood pressure or smoking as a risk factor for early death.
In the course of researching a book about solitude, I asked about 200 people what was the longest period of time they had ever spent alone. This meant not seeing another person or communicating in any way, including by phone, email, or text message. More than 90 percent admitted that they had never passed a single day in solitude. In many cases, it was just a handful of waking hours.
A study by the University of Virginia showed that a large majority of men, and 25 percent of women, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit silently alone for 15 minutes. “The mind does not like to be alone with itself,” the study’s authors concluded. The worst non-lethal punishment in the U.S. penal system is solitary confinement. “Man is by nature a social animal,” noted Aristotle
2,000 years ago.
These people, rather than living solely selfish existences, have instead introduced to society some of its most profound and history-altering ideas.
Once, I tried to escape the world by enrolling in an intense 10-day meditation course, during which I was not permitted to speak to anybody, or read anything, or even make eye contact. I found the course grueling; at times, nearly tortuous. The desire to socialize never left me. I can understand why the United Nations has decreed that keeping a person in isolation for more than 15 days is cruel and inhuman punishment. “No man is an island,” the English poet John Donne
famously wrote. Human beings demand connection.
And yet throughout history, at all times across all cultures, there have been exceptions, a thin stream of people who have abandoned society for a period of time. It’s important to note the difference between loneliness, which is the pain of social isolation (often felt by prisoners or hostages whose aloneness has been forced upon them), and solitude, which is voluntarily chosen and is often described as exhilarating.
Solitude-seekers have been called recluses, hermits, loners, shamans, introverts, and misanthropes, among many other names. These people, rather than living solely selfish existences, have instead introduced to society some of its most profound and history-altering ideas.
Start with religion: Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha all spent significant time alone — a desert for Jesus, a cave for Mohammed, beneath a tree for Buddha — before presenting a new faith to the world. The realm of artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and writers is stacked with solitaries. Albert Einstein
called himself a “loner in daily life.” Michelangelo
wrote, “I have no friends of any sort and I don’t want any.” Franz Kafka
, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton
, Emily Dickinson
, Gustav Mahler
, J. D. Salinger
, Thomas Pynchon
, Nathaniel Hawthorne
, and Lord Byron
have all been described as loners.
“Solitude is the school for genius,” wrote the English historian Edward Gibbon
“Every superior human being will instinctively aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd,” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
. According to Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows
, a series of studies has demonstrated that, after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”
Recently, in the state of Maine, a man named Christopher Knight was arrested while stealing food from the kitchen of a summer camp. It emerged that Knight had been living in the woods, alone, without conversing with a single person, for 27 years. This is a historically long time to remain completely secluded. (Henry David Thoreau
, by contrast, lived on Walden Pond for two years, during which he hosted many visitors.)
In fact, odd as it seems, it’s likely that Christopher Knight, living in the northeastern United States in the age of social media, has been more invisible, more deeply alone, than any known person in all of human history.
I was able to spend some time with Knight after his capture, and he described what it felt like to spend such an immense period of time by himself. I also read the accounts of dozens of others who felt the urge to abandon the world. Though some people left for religious reasons, and others artistic reasons — or, in Knight’s case, simply because being alone made him more content than living with others — there was surprising consistency to the stories, even across different eras and cultures.
Nearly everyone noted that their perception of time was altered. The past and the future seemed to evaporate, and they lived in the perpetual now, achieving what Buddhists call “mindfulness.” The poet Rainer Maria Rilke
wrote that “all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary.” Thoreau said, “My days were not days of the week…nor were they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock.” Christopher Knight said simply, “Time died for me.”
Knight also said that the boundary between him and the forest seemed to dissolve — he was often unable to tell where he ended and nature began — and this sparked in him an intense sense of liberty. “I was completely free,” Knight said. Sara Maitland, in A Book of Silence
, wrote, “I felt absolutely connected to everything.”
Virtually all solitaries have reported that they were not once bored. Tenzin Palmo
, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who lived alone in a cave high in the Himalayas of India for 12 years, said, “I was never lonely and never bored.” Christopher Knight said he couldn’t even imagine feeling bored. “If you like solitude,” Knight said, “you’re never alone.”
Nearly every hermit also spoke of an intense sense of contentment and fulfillment — a happiness that, frankly, is difficult to find among the vast majority of us who will never spend any real time alone. The poet William Wordsworth
called it the “bliss of solitude.” Robert Kull
, who in 2001 spent a year living alone on a tiny island in Patagonia, said he felt a “sense of vibrant aliveness.” Solitude, wrote Thoreau, is “medicine to the soul.” The English writer Thomas de Quincey
said, “No man will ever unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude.”
And yet despite providing clear benefits, almost none of us will ever really put down our phones, disconnect our Internet, and simply savor the silence and stillness. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote French philosopher Blaise Pascal
It’s been theorized that the widespread occurrence of depression in modern culture, the need for so many of us to ingest psychotropic medications, is linked to our refusal to allow ourselves any quiet time. We feel the need to remain constantly busy and socially productive, and this prevents us from ever turning inward to merely be with ourselves.
All we can do is be thankful that others — the hermits of history — have instead been able to do it for us.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
and True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa
, which was adapted into a 2015 major motion picture.