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Secret Joys of Solitude by ARDIS WHITMAN

时间:2009-12-05 17:06:40  来源:  作者:



IT IS JANUARY, and rain freezes as it falls, I am sitting at my desk in a house so silent that I could hear a bird alight on the roof. No one comes in from the cold, clamoring for dinner. No one calls me outside to see the ice on the birch tree. No one interrupts me with an anxious “Haven’t you worked enough for one day?”

The silence began seven years ago, on a beautiful spring day full of the sound of running water. My husband, eager to start the golf season, gave me a quick hug and dashed out the door, calling back, “Hold the fort! I’ll be home at three.” But long before that hour, he had fallen, stricken by a heart attack. He never came home again.

My experience feels unique to me, but of course it is not. There are legions of lonely widows and widowers in America. Nor is the death of a loved one the only entry into the kingdom of loneliness. People are shaken loose from living with others for myriad reasons. Solitude is on the increase in America. If we live long enough, most of us will have one or more sequences of it during our lives.

We who are solitary are visited from time to time by great gusts of loneliness. We are scared by those dismal hours in which what we have to do — without anyone helping us — seems too much. We are overwhelmed by a longing for the paired or family life of others, for the joy of sharing experiences.

But solitude can also be a way of life full of satisfaction, warmth and even joy. Since the un-chosen times of solitude come to so many of us, it behooves us to learn how to find these joys, so that we many live alone in dignity and grace.

Looking back now after the healing years, I see some of these rewards of solitude crystallizing in my mind. Like the first thin sunlight after rain, there is a meager, yet growing, warmth that is as indigenous to unchosen solitude as sorrow itself is. Where does this warmth come from? First of all, from memory, which holds together the days of our lives.
Solitude enhances memory. And so, curiously, memories strengthen in us the sense of the continuity of our lives at the very time that grief has interrupted it. From these enhanced memories comes a new kind of understanding.

One summer day I gathered together a lifetime of my husband’s letters to me and reread them in sequence. What a loving, complex, often-tormented human being emerged from them! Sadly, I saw that what he wanted and what he was had been often lost in the net of daily living. What if I had understood better? Listened more? Stayed closer?

Perhaps this new understanding I feel now is something we cannot have until space and time intervene. For it is only that all the bits and pieces come together. We see him whole, and our vision is unobstructed by the pettiness in life.

If solitude is warmed by memory, it is warmed also by a growing sense of our own identity. After I had been alone for a few weeks, I found myself caught up in innumerable interior dialogues — between the self who wanted to die and the self who wanted to live, the self who believed and the one who denied, the self who loved and the one who repudiated love because it hurt too much.

Haven’t we always known that we were a congregation of selves—compassionate and cruel, mature and childish, wise and shallow? And haven’t we always known that the dialogue with these warring selves was waiting for us to catch up with it?

Caught in these struggles, I had a chance to come to grips with my unexplained feelings and answer some important questions. Why do I do this and not that? What is being asked of me? What am I to do with my life? When we live surrounded by people, some of the passion and insight natural to us leaks away through the sieve of small talk. Alone, we are forced to pay attention to the question marks that experience raises in our hearts.

Solitude is also the identity-making place where one learns to overcome fears. How many I had when my solitude began! There was the fear of driving a long distance alone; the fear of the night; the fear that I would never be loved again.

Every day, too, the solitary person—still fighting the human battle against growing up—must cope with something new. If you are a woman alone, you must learn now how to look after the car; how to find out what is wrong with the furnace; how to do your own income tax. Quickly and painfully, you discover what kind of a human being you are, what kind of resources you have. And in solitude, where, as the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “there is nothing that does not see you.” Only honesty is good enough.

At your most daring moments, you believe that what is going on is that ultimate human work—the shaping of a soul. True, there are plenty of agnostics in the foxholes of solitude; some of them got that way because they were too much alone too long. Nevertheless, there is something in the nature of the solitary experience that contributes to the growth of the spirit. And many a solitude has been lighted by the discovery of what the Quakers call “that of God in every man.”

Above all, solitude is warmed by people and our new understanding of them. That is a paradox, I know. You may ask: isn’t the solitary, by the very nature of solitude, handicapped in relationships with others? On the contrary, the solitary is particularly fitted for human relationships. The most obvious reason is simply his need. “Loneliness,” wrote Carl Jung, “is not necessarily inimical to companionship, for no one is more sensitive to companionship than the lonely man.”

We have empty, therefore open, hearts as we did not when preoccupied with one love. We are freer to meet the stranger, freer to talk to him in depth. Friends appear like sunbursts in the dark. We are like the Bushman who, traditionally, on meeting another Bushman in a desert wilderness, cries, “Good day! I have been dead, but now that you have come I live again.”

The sorrow of others seem to enter you solitude as though they were framed by the understanding of your own struggles. I remember a day when, for the first time, I felt I deeply understood the temptations of an alcoholic friend. I had condemned her in my heart but now, knowing how I have longed to escape my fate, I see how human it is to look for refuge wherever you can find it. There was a day, too, when I suddenly understood why timid people—always difficult for me to understand—may shrink from expressing themselves, when the expression might bring to light so much darkness within.

And then, though we spend less time in the presence of others, what we do spend there has a new and special quality. More often than in the past, my friends and I communicate on a deeper level, perhaps because I now talk more freely and honestly to them. As psychiatrist Jan Ehrenwald said to me years ago, “The deeper you go, the closer you are.”

Solitude is a part of the inescapable enterprise of maturing. A time of solitude, well used, is a spillway for what has choked one’s life; it is an illumination of the rest of experience.
But it is not tranquil. The inward life of those upon whom solitude has been thrust is a threshing floor of emotions. I suspect that solitude never weaves you the same as when it found you. You emerge from it angrier or gentler; sterner or more compassionate; more bitter or more loving; more shut within or more communicating; but never the same.

Like most important learning experiences, solitude is full of pain. No state of life can sour more easily. We must use both craft and courage to prevent it from doing so.

Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Nothing separates us from others as quickly as self-pity. The risk for all of us who live alone is that our feelings may become the most important thing in our lives. We may brood resentfully about people instead of responding to them; we may glorify “the way it used to be” and give little heed to the life we are now living.

Although it is not easy, you must contrive in your solitude to love life and people dearly. Remember, you will not always feel as you do now. It is impossible to exaggerate the resilience of the human spirit.

Search out the joys of solitude. I have heard lonely people say, “Nothing good ever happens to me.” You will not think so if you keep a journal! Each day in my journal I list my special joys: “Today a friend called and brought me an unexpected gift; I took a long walk and came back feeling rejuvenated.” Looking back over the pages, I can watch myself growing and discover how unpredictable and wonderful life can be.

Accept your solitude as a time to grow. The trouble with many unhappy, lonely people is that they can see no significance in their solitude. Our lives are, and ought to be, like the seasons and the weather, a movement in and out of sun and shadow, rain and aridity. Solitude is not an interval to be endured. Rather it is related to our lives as a link to a chain. It is—if we will let it be—a time to grow; a time to see both the past and the future directions of our lives.
Accept your solitude. Do not think of it as either temporary or permanent, but rather as just here, to be dealt with now.

Perhaps you will live alone the rest of your life — and you must be ready for that. But if there is some thing you want—remarriage, a new kind of work, new friends—transmute the longing into being worthy of these things when and if they come.

Deepen your life. Turn everything to account, to understanding. This is the special virtue of solitude. The power of life comes from within; go there. Pray; meditate. Reach for those luminous places in yourself where, for most of your life, you have been a stranger.
Love, respect and enjoy yourself. Do not castigate yourself for guilts that may have contributed to your loneliness. Rest; eat well; sleep. And give yourself rewards, surprises, joys. Say to yourself, “I have been hurt. I will allow myself a break, a comfort.”
Given a choice, few people would pick solitude as a permanent state; nor would I. But I would choose to have it as a portion of life sometime, for without it we cannot be whole. As playwright Christopher Fry says, “No man is free who will not dare to pursue the questions of his own loneliness. It is through them that he lives.”

Remember, all of us are solitaries even when we are living in a house full of people. Everyone is born alone; finds the meaning of his life alone; goes to his heath alone. The most important thing we can do is to learn to live with ourselves with courage, humility and beauty.

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