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Solitude, in its present form, is overrated

by Debra Hale-Shelton | April 5, 2020 at 1:51 a.m.

I've not heard anyone preaching the joys of solitude lately.

As I write this, it is Tuesday, the day before April Fool's Day, a time in our lives far worse than a practical joke, an era when a deadly pandemic largely prohibits anything but isolation, euphemistically called "social distancing."

Those of who are indeed keeping our distance from other humans can perhaps finally appreciate what it's like to be alone in a world united only through social media and, love it or hate it, the news media. Solitude--or as I prefer to call it, isolation--is not much fun when it's forced on us, is it?

If self-isolation is so much fun, so relaxing, why would we need to see more lists like those already popping up all over the country--uplifting or distracting books, recipes for baking bread or other time-consuming foods, films being rushed to streaming to satisfy movie-goers shut out of theaters. Even my college-freshman daughter, rarely short on friends, is staying in touch with them via FaceTime and old-fashioned phone calls.

When solitude is not a choice but is due to contagions, illness, old age, language, religious barriers, or sadly few if any friends, it suddenly becomes more about loneliness and perhaps fear than the solitude extolled among New Age disciples, poets who favor rhyme over reality, and amateur psychologists.

The sole black person in a classroom, a band concert, a church or a Girl Scout troop may well take pride in breaking the racial barrier but still likely would prefer companionship to isolation or simply to standing alone. No one wants to be the focus of stares, even if they're in admiration; no one wants to be a wallflower at a homecoming dance.

We must learn to console ourselves, but we are also our brother's and our sister's keeper. So when we see someone suffering alone, it should be our privilege and duty to share our space, our company, our tears and, our laughter. Why else do we share laughter and gifts on birthdays, tears and hugs at funerals?

I was in my early 30s when I was promoted from my job as a reporter at The Associated Press in Little Rock to a correspondent in a once-busy but then sleepy railroad town of Centralia, Ill. I remember my shock when I first saw the town. It was small, had not one resident I then knew, and offered very little to do at night or on the weekends.

Distraught, I sought solace in my first cigarette. Thankfully, it was also my last cigarette. I don't recall if I inhaled or gagged; I do remember a total distaste for cigarettes and Centralia. The following Monday, I had to begin working in a one-person office. After less than a year, I moved to Chicago, by request.

I was much happier in Chicago, for even when I was alone, I took solace as I looked out my high-rise apartment window and saw scores of workers crossing the Michigan Avenue bridge as they left work each day. In the summer, I'd see sailboats and crowded tourist boats floating by on the Chicago River. Whether my AP shift ended at 6 p.m. or 6 a.m., I could always find a place to dine or shop within walking distance--an important requirement since I didn't own a car.

I was shy and didn't meet people easily. So I joined a group called Singles Gourmet, where men and women--most of us middle-aged--ate at a Chicago-area restaurant each month. I attended a small church, so little that we met in a large hotel room on Michigan Avenue. I soon knew everyone there by name and considered all of them friends. If I became sick, someone checked on me, because that's what friends do for each other.

One Thanksgiving, while I was still single and living in Chicago, I didn't get to return to Arkansas for the holiday. Instead, a young couple with two small children invited me to have dinner with them at their suburban home. I was neither lonely nor forgotten. I was instead blessed with the company and the food of others.

When we buried my father in Marked Tree last fall, dozens of long-time friends joined us in remembering a life well-lived, in singing a hymn about "God's family," even in laughter at fond memories. Had I stood alone at that gravesite, driven back to my Conway home alone, not seen another person from happier times that day, I would have grieved even more.

Marcus Aurelius once said, "Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul."

Perhaps that's right for some people, but not all. To presume that everyone's soul is an "untroubled retreat" ignores the grief felt by a dying child's mother, the murderer's guilty or perhaps numb conscience, the pain and confusion suffered by an abused child.

Certainly, at times we all need to be alone with ourselves, perhaps to pray, to laugh or to have a good cry. But most of us neither want nor need solitude 24/7.

We need each other. But the best thing we can do for each other right now is to stay alone, talk by phone, email, snail mail, Facebook.

Someday, life will be back to normal, albeit a new normal, and we can once again celebrate an end to that thing we once praised so much: solitude.

Perhaps the late French writer Colette offered the most balanced view of the virtues of solitude when she said, "There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall."

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 04/05/2020

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