The remedy for loneliness
is in learning to admit
solitude as one admits
the bayonet: gracefully,
now that already
it pierces the heart.
—Denis Johnson, “The White Fires of Venus” (1975)
In dark times, we often turn to literature to help us understand the turmoil raging within ourselves and our worlds. During the 1850s, for example, American readers looked to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) for moral clarity, when the evils of chattel slavery threatened to tear the nation apart. During the 1950s and ’60s, millions of people thumbed through the pages of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951), searching for some insight into the mechanics of mass movements—mass movements that had swept across Europe during the first half of the twentieth century and had culminated in the rise of murderous dictators like Hitler and Stalin. And during the 1970s and ’80s, wisdom-seekers solicited philosophical illumination from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), hoping to make sense of the dehumanizing forces of technocracy and mechanization, and meaning-making in a postmodern society.
In 2017, we, too, find ourselves facing dark times. Between Britain’s Brexit bungle; Donald Trump’s contemptuous campaign and calamitous election to the American presidency; the rise of racist right-wing parties throughout Europe; and the torrent of proto-totalitarian forces endangering Latin America, Russia, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, democracy around the world has again come under attack. It’s no small wonder, then, that we are once more turning to books to crystallize the confusion of our current moment. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-four (1949), Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) have surged to the top of our bestseller’s lists.
Although these works were written by thinkers from vastly different backgrounds, and although each of them imagined vastly different dystopian horrors, all of them described a world in which critical thought had been suppressed—a world where citizens had been willingly transformed into powerless cogs in a nightmarish political regime, where they had suddenly become incapable of distinguishing between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. As Arendt so powerfully pointed out in 1951, totalitarian government didn’t just destroy public political life. It destroyed private life as well. Totalitarianism “bases itself on loneliness,” she proclaimed, “on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”
In many ways, this is the most urgent lesson for us today: In order to protect and preserve public democratic deliberation and action, we must first protect and preserve our private lives by cultivating spaces for solitary contemplation.
Thomas Merton, the Catholic thinker and monastic mystic, reminds us of precisely what is at stake, both politically and spiritually, when we surrender our solitude. In 1958, he wrote,
Society depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers, or mechanical units, but of persons. To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society—or to refuse that gift. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.
Our right to belong to the world, then, is inextricably tied to our ability to dwell within our own unique solitude. A society made up of thoughtless persons, as both Arendt and Merton understood so well, is no society at all: The possibility of building a shared community is vanquished once we become unthinking cogs in the political machine, incapable of recognizing and valuing the humanity in ourselves and in others. If we lose our capacity to engage in that solitary “conversation which the soul holds with herself”—that crucial question-and-answer process “in which we examine what we say and what we do”—we also risk losing touch not just with “our own secret knowledge” (to borrow a line from the poet Seamus Heaney) but also with the “actual givens” of our lives, with reality itself.
Solitary contemplation, in other words, demands of us nothing less than a moral reckoning. It demands that we heed Arendt’s warning and stop for a critical moment to “think what we are doing.” It demands that we admit the possibility that we might be wrong, that we might be hypocrites, or that we might be capable of horrifying cruelties. It demands that we face our own depravity.
This kind of solitude is not easy. W. B. Yeats once said that one can “show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself” as a soldier who walks willingly into battle. In 1963, the German-American theologian Paul Tillich also recognized the terror of facing the ugliness within ourselves and our worlds. He declared that, in solitude, “we meet ourselves not as ourselves, but as the battlefield for creation and destruction, for God and the demons.” “Who can bear it?” he lamented. But bear it we must. Isolation and loneliness—the toolkit of tyranny—“can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.” To have the courage to think critically, to unsettle established conventions, to resist the easy comforts of conformity, is to have the courage to redraw and reimagine our moral maps. In the end, we might find grace in our solitude, we might be inspired by the better angels of our nature to build a better community. We must “dare to have solitude,” Tillich concluded, “to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.”
In solitude, then, we confront not just hope and beauty but despair and suffering. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we have to “confront suffering.” We have to “look deeply into the nature of suffering in order to recognize its cause.” Once we understand its roots, “the path leading to the transformation of suffering is revealed. And if [we] go on that path—namely, the path of right thinking, right speech, and right action—then [we] can transform [our] suffering. And if [we] practice as a nation, [we] help the whole nation to transform suffering.”
In dark times, it is precisely this kind of reckoning with ourselves and our worlds that is essential to the resistance of tyranny. In our automated age of unthinking distraction, it has become more imperative than ever that we consciously cultivate spaces for solitary contemplation. We must learn to strike a balance between solitude and society, between the hard work of the thinking activity and the mindless entertainment of consumerism. We must turn off our screens and tune out the incessant drone of information, and we must resist the allure of our news feeds where everything has become increasingly homogenized and intolerant of individual differences. By disregarding these distractions, we admittedly face the possibility that our engagement with the world has been largely vacuous rather than informed, superficial rather than authentic. But solitude is not easy. We must have courage.
Solitary contemplation becomes more than self-cultivation and self-care at precisely the moment when our shared world is threatened, when, as Yeats put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” and “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Solitary contemplation can become an act of political resistance when political turmoil threatens to darken our horizons of possibility, when it appears that the sun is setting on the prospect of taking an alternate path.
The present will soon become the past, and if history is contingent, then so is our current moment. As Nhat Hanh reminds us, our “freedom is not given to us by anyone; we have to cultivate it ourselves. It is a daily practice.” In dark times, solitary contemplation provides us with a way to preserve our innermost freedom, and it gives us the hope that we might better understand ourselves and our worlds. Private solitary contemplation can provide us with that rare lightning flash of insight that illuminates how we ought to live and act in public. It requires courage. But if we can dare to think deeply and differently, if we can possess the foresight and fortitude to resist thoughtless conformity, to stir up the stagnant waters of our conventional wisdom, we might just think ourselves onto an alternate path—a path that might just lead us out of the darkness.
Jennifer Stitt is a historian of modern American thought, culture, and politics who earned a B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She’s working on her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives and writes in Birmingham.