The Joy of Solitude

A friend asked if I went on a silent retreat during Thanksgiving. True, I spent the week at Holden Village, a spiritual retreat center where I lived from 2011-2014. A former mining town high in the North Cascade Mountains, Holden was once described by a former director as “a retreat for extroverts.”

Holden Village dining hall decked out for the Christmas feast. (File photo from a previous year.)

I, like most people who live alone, have been on pretty much of a silent retreat since spring of 2020. I generally read during my silent, solo meals. Thanksgiving dinner in the Holden dining hall was served to about a hundred folks, all masked unless fork was en route to mouth. Masks did little to muffle the crowd’s chatter and musical laughter, accompanied by the percussion of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen and metronomic beat from the ping pong table in a corner of the large hall. Music less symphonic, more heavy metal rock to my ears. Unnerving, which is exactly why I needed to be there. Solitude had been getting altogether too comfortable. 

Last summer a few friends and I, gathered outdoors, admitted to each other that we were thriving in social isolation. We felt almost guilty, enjoying ourselves when many people are suffering and grieving. All of us in that group live close to nature. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I were stuck in an urban apartment with a view of concrete and asphalt. I know I’d feel differently if I didn’t have the companionship of my dog.

“Don’t fear solitude,” advised writer Paulo Coelho. “If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. But don’t get too attached to it — it may become an addiction.”

Besides which, snarked another writer, Erica Jong, “Solitude is un-American.” Indeed, we loners are under a lot of pressure not to enjoy solitude on that thoroughly American holiday, Thanksgiving. The pressure will only increase as we move toward Christmas, a day not even Scrooge was allowed to spend alone.

Being alone does not equate with loneliness, and loneliness is not the same as solitude, noted a lovely essay in Psychology Today — in 2003! That was long before “social distancing” became common to our vocabulary.

“Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation,” the magazine explained. “Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.” 

If solitude were to have a patron saint, a likely candidate would be Henry David Thoreau who observed, “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”

Even during my un-retreat, in between meals and various gatherings, I’d seek refuge in the solitude of my room, curled up with a good book. Much as I enjoyed meeting up with old friends at Holden and making new ones, I’ve gotta admit: the best part of the week was reuniting with my dog (he’d spent the week at the pet resort) and stepping into my house, embraced once again by my silent retreat. 

Thank you to Maxime Lagacé, whose web site, “Wisdom Quotes,” provided a few of the above quotes. Visit the site to read more pithy observations about wisdom.  

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