Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just Between Us, We Each Need to Be Alone -- PART 1

In the days – make that “decades” – before the Memsahib entered my life, I was alone a lot. I don’t know if I was alone more than most men of my generation, occupation, and location, but I believe that I was. Oh, I had some good friends and a girlfriend now and then, and if I had invested all of the money I spent in bars and nice restaurants during those years, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the Obama administration. But while I was no Trappist, I’ll bet that I fell on the more-alone end of the scale.

The reason is pretty simple – I liked being alone. Within the borders of my commitment to the Mem – which will have its glorious tenth anniversary next week – I still do.

The reason isn't too important to the point I want to make somewhere in the next post, but I think it may have been because I was an early reader. Children these days can read by the time they get to first grade, but when I showed up in Mrs. Duvall’s classroom at Belleaire Elementary able to read at speed anything they put in front of me, I was unique (except for one other kid, Bryan Jack, a certifiably brilliant kid who grew up to be a certifiably brilliant adult, and who was tragically killed on 9/11 – another story). Not to say that I understood everything that I was capable of reading out at speed and with expression, but for a little kid I put on a pretty good show.

So, I read. I read everything – classics, kid’s books (Hardy Boys, Tom Swift Jr.), science, history, biography, modern literature, popular fiction, current events, the newspaper, magazines. Reading and the thinking it requires is done alone. It was pleasurable; I liked it, and finally grew to need it. Among my life’s highlights are, and will be, the solitary driving vacations I would take to the American West, almost always making sure that Death Valley was somewhere on the route – the best place in the world to be alone. I kept a microcassette recorder on the seat beside me, and when I had a Great Thought, or saw something interesting, I’d compose into the recorder and transcribe it later.

Not me reading; I was, however, black-and-white in those days

Was I ever lonely growing up and growing older? Oh, yeah. But I didn’t feel it very often, or very keenly, or for very long.

Of course, it is true and quite well known that excessive solitude is not good for us social human creatures. Kids need to be “socialized” through play, interaction with their parents, and group studies at school. Being alone too much can make us lonely, depressed, make us feel unattractive and unwanted. Make us be unattractive and unwanted.

In fact, the point of view that values social interaction above solitude has carried the day. We accept that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” (Don’t think about that lyric too hard – it doesn’t make much sense – but you know what it intends.)

I accept this, but also regret that so few of the last generation or so, and fewer still of the present generation (which is what? the generation that makes the biggest nuisance of itself at any given time?), spend much time alone. And by “alone” I mean “not actively communicating with or being in the presence of another person known to one.” Cell phones; email; Facebook; Twitter; Skype; there will be more to come. I feel sorry for the young men and women, mostly young, who spend enormous amounts of time and mental energy communicating the most banal trivialities with no corresponding enhancement of their social skills, useful knowledge, intelligence, or any other noticeable human characteristic. 

Of course, humans derive independent pleasure from the act of communicating and receiving communications – communicating is better than not communicating.  Got nothing against any of these technologies; we're demonstrably better off for each of them.   It’s the amount of time spent on communicating for its own sake, the communication of crap, that makes me wonder whether these folks ever have the opportunity to think, to learn things of value, to form intelligent convictions.  (Yes, I understand that this assumes that some communications are crap-heavy and some aren't, and that some learning is more valuable than other learning.  This assumption is correct.  I'll get to it some other time.) 

In short, I'm concerned that the pleasure of easy communications is robbing us of time that we need to be alone.

In my next post I’ll review some recent work on the benefits of solitude, and my own experience. Up in a few.

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