In life, time alone is something we can never get enough of and unfortunately its not easy. If you can afford to spend a week in retreat, it can be essential to helping you figure out your life and be free from the constraints of thinking within what we believe society permits us to think. You see, even language is an incredibly reductive form of communication, restricting our thoughts to what is permissible in society, along with connotations of how we are supposed to regard different concepts.
The following essay examines the place of solitude in the journeys of two individuals that took time to be by themselves. Grumbach is an elderly writer who reflects on her life while in a cabin in the woods. Byrd is a former soldier now working with a group of scientists in the artic.
After considering multiple sources of literature on the matter and examining the place of solitude in religious and spiritual journeys, Barbour concludes “Solitude at its best—when it realizes its fullest ethical and spiritual value—is not oriented toward escaping the world, but toward a different kind of participation in it, as made possible by disengagement from ordinary social interactions” (Barbour 3). In both of their memoirs, Grumbach and Byrd initially describe feelings of withdrawal from their identity dependence on society that soon gave way to discovering a new sense of self, now liberated from the expectations and importunities of group living. Without the distractions of society, however, introspection meant sometimes confronting difficult memories and unresolved feelings that neither wanted to deal with. For Grumbach, her time in solitude appeared to be a painful, yet necessary detoxing process, while Byrd simply blocked out these feelings and focused on the negatives of society that he was happy to free from. Ultimately, both Grumbach and Byrd’s appreciation for nature helped them to get them through these difficulties, leaving them with substantial personal revelations and arguably positive psychological/spiritual benefits.
While neither of the authors indicated that their leave of absence from society came after some traumatic event, both quickly recognized how dependent their identities had become on their respective groups, and how their time alone helped them to discover a new sense of self. At first, both authors describe feeling a sense of anxiety from leaving society:
“I wondered how long it would be before the wonderful calm that commanded my mind at the start of isolation turned into unbearable loneliness.” (Grumbach 15)
“And, obeying an impulse which I had no time to be ashamed of, I rushed up the hatch ladder. Just why, I don’t know even now; perhaps for a last look at something alive and moving.” (Byrd 19)
Grumbach notes that the key to overcoming her initial anxiety was developing a self-disciplined routine. Without society around to preserve her social identity, she no longer had to work to fit in and was now responsible for finding new ways of occupying her mental faculties in order to become comfortable with her situation. Long and Averill noted the importance of being able to self-discipline, saying “At the very least, in order to benefit from solitude, the individual must be able to draw on inner resources to find meaning in a situation in which external supports are lacking. This perhaps explains why many people, when alone, engage in distracting rather than productive activities” (Long and Averill 20).
Similarly, after Byrd began his work setting up in his shack, his anxiety was replaced with the wonder of the nature around him, saying “If great inward peace and exhilaration can exist together, then this, I decided my first night alone, was what should possess the senses” (Byrd 20). Nearly three weeks into his journey he began to perceive deeply profound moments of being in sync with nature. “It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant, I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe…that went to the heart of man’s despair and found it groundless” (Byrd 21). Byrd neatly follows the Barbour’s characterization of the Romance era writers who felt awareness of boundaries between oneself and the world dissolve while in nature. He began to see himself not as an offshoot of the universe existing in chaos, but as but a rightful part of the cosmos, ordered in ways he had previously overlooked because he had been occupied with functioning within the social constructs of society rather than nature.
While living in society, this process may begin to overcome our sense of self, commonly referred to as feeling like we are losing ourselves to fit in. This was definitely the case for Grumbach who seemed to face even more difficulty with rediscovering her sense of self because of her identity dependency on society. Throughout her experience she seems to go mad, complaining about silence, and then silence being deafening. While nature offered Grumbach a sense contentment, her time in introspection also meant pondering over her life in ways that became terribly uncomfortable to deal with. Leaving behind the distractions that living in a group provided meant that she could no longer block out unpleasant thoughts and memories. Even if intentionally guarding yourself, she said: “one is still not safe from assault by the guerrilla forces of painful memories and deeply hidden guilt…” (Grumbach 17).
Similarly, Byrd had a time of examining negative aspects of his prior relationships: “the betrayals, the disappointments, and the bitterness—I shut it out entirely. Only by ruthlessly exorcising the disillusioning and unpleasant thoughts can I maintain any feeling of real detachment…” (Byrd 22). Instead of processing these memories, Byrd reflected on the negative aspects of society, annoyed with how his telegraph connected him with “places where speeches are made and with the importunities of the outer world” (Byrd 21). Still, Byrd does miss society, saying “I know that someday, out of pure curiosity, I shall be tempted to ask how the stock market is going or what’s happening in Washington. And… any news will probably bring restlessness and discontent. …” (Byrd 21).
Meanwhile, as Grumbach struggled with her regrets, her time in the cabin helped her to feel connected with the world outside of society in a way which facilitated her rediscovering a sense of self. Relating herself to a fictional character named Effing who painted as “a way of penetrating the world and finding one’s place in it,” she began to agree that the journey was more important than the outcome and that she should not be concerned with the judgments of others (Grumbach 15). After a while, she was once again able to discern her own voice coming through the cloud of thoughts from society that filled her head but lamented that she felt sadly that it was not worth listening to.
Overall, both authors were able to reconnect with a sense of self during their time alone. For others who have had similar experiences, Barbour notes that “Solitude is a return to the self, but … it may also be a return to what is most important in one’s life and an encounter with sources of meaning and truth beyond oneself” (Barbour 3). During Grumbach’s experience she realized that to preserve her new sense of self she would have to develop an outer layer that could fit in with society so that she could live among others without forgetting the personal revelations that she had made:
“I now needed to live, with the top layer of my person known to the outside world and displayed for social purposes. But, close to the bone, there had to be an inner stratum, formed and cultivated in solitude, where the essence of what I was, am now, and will be, perhaps, to the end of my days, hides itself and waits to be found by the lasting silence” (Grumbach 22).
Grumbach also notes of her experience that if she was not prepared to love herself despite her past sins, this time in solitude would have let unresolved guilt consume her, relating how young people are pressured by the world not to respect themselves and that the “dismayingly high number of suicides among young persons attests to the consequences of such destructive isolation” (Grumbach 18). Yet her time alone let her rediscover the self she had lost. Of course, one can’t just go into society radically different than they were before—change is a cause for unwanted attention and alarm. That she holds guarded, free from the judgment of a hypocritical world, but may let slip through her work from time to time and that will be the genius she is recognized for.
Byrd, on the other hand, appears to have enjoyed his experience far more, consistently noting the beauty of the artic auroras and how this was a welcome respite from society. On a deeper level, however, he makes several references to God and crosses, seeming to indicate that he once had some kind of a Christian faith. Earlier in his journey he observes nature, commenting that “the way these things went together showed a master’s touch” (Byrd 21). In his last journal entry, the idea of a supreme being comes up again as he relates an aurora taking the shape of a serpent consuming the night sky “as if stirred by a celestial presence” (Byrd 22). Quickly, however, the aurora dissipated offering a victory to the night sky. This scene that he alone was able to see made the hazards of isolation worth it, offering “a temporary peace won by a physically occupied body” now concluding that there was life after death (Byrd 22).
Byrd so convinced himself of this that for weeks suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning but couldn’t bring himself to leave, keeping his condition a secret from the rest of his team. Whether or not his observations were correct, anthropomorphizing nature allowed Byrd to override his sense of “terrestrial” security putting him in a very dangerous condition. This appears to be consistent with a study discussed by Long and Averill, concluding that solitude facilitated imaginative involvement in multiple realities (Long and Averill 6). Without other people to confirm the importance of survival, Byrd’s ‘transcended self’ nearly resulted in his death. For Byrd, believing that his experiences indicated security past our physical form may have ultimately left him with a positive view of his experience. As outside observers, however, we may appreciate how solitude was able to break down tedious social constructs in the case of Grumbach, but we never know what we might be compelled to do when subject to the whims of our own imagination as in the case with Byrd.
Music Pairing: Rainymood and/or Silence
Barbour, John. “A View from Religious Studies: Solitude and Spirituality.” In The Handbook Of Solitude. Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker, eds. UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2014.
Byrd, Richard E. Alone. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1938.
Christopher, and James Averill. “Solitude: An Exploration of Benefits of Being Alone.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 33:1
Grumbach, Doris. Fifty Days of Solitude. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994