The Lure of Isolation
I recently spoke to a 47 year-old bachelor friend of mine who calculated that he’s lived alone for two straight decades, and as much as he’d one day like to have a lasting relationship, he’s not sure he’d ever be able to adapt to having to live with someone aside from his dog and one-eyed cat. Old habits die hard. Twenty year-old habits die harder. His idiosyncrasies and routines are ingrained.
Or so he thinks. I have another friend who didn’t get married until the ripe age of 60, so my bachelor buddy may be more capable of change than he gives himself credit for.
His calculation of years of solitude caused me to do a quick calculation of my own. Although I’ve spent countless hours alone, I have never actually lived alone. Not from the early years as the last addition to a family of five to the most recent years, when my own family of five shed a few from our humble abode. (The Sesame Street song – so anachronistic today for so many Americans – runs through my head from time to time: “I’ve got five people in my family, and there’s not one of them I’d swap…”) Sure, there were a few months in grad school when my roommate’s fixation on a new girlfriend resulted in a period of my coming home to an empty apartment, but he’d be back for days at a time, his name was still on the lease, and this was grad school, when every day and every evening was brimming with social activity. If anything, I was relieved to have a few moments to myself.
For me, solitude is one of two essential ingredients for creativity (the other is time), and during my formative high school years, I had it in spades as my two siblings ventured to college and my mother worked crazy nursing hours. It fed my creative pursuits and allowed me to understand who I am. It’s something I’ve gotten used to, and I’ve found it to be a blessing. As the Dr. Seuss book says, “Whether you like it or not, alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.” It is, and I’m comfortable with it (I’m alone right now as I write this piece, and I couldn’t be happier). But I also recognized early on as an adult that my need for solitude is offset by my need for human interaction on a daily basis. If I don’t have both, I’m a wreck. The human contact I experience doesn’t always have to be extensive or particularly meaningful – a nice talk with a dog-walker on the street might be sufficient – but it does have to be there.
I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s biography, Born to Run (review forthcoming), and he spends quite a few pages exploring his opposing desires for solitude and ample human contact. He writes that early in his role as a father, when one of his children released him from his attention, “I’d often breathe a sigh of relief and run back to my fortress of solitude, where as usual I felt at home, safe, until, like a bear in need of blood and meat, I’d wake from my hibernation and travel through the house for my drink from the cup of human love and companionship.”
I’m of a similar makeup. Just as my bachelor friend can’t imagine living with someone, I can’t imagine living without someone. If circumstances relegated me to a period of time in an empty house, I believe I’d last about three days before experiencing a mental breakdown. And this leads me to think of my mother, who, when I left for college, lived alone for the first time in her life. She was forty-eight, the same age I am today. And I wonder if she was no more capable of handling that transition than I would be today.
One of my favorite albums as a teenager, and one that still holds my attention today, is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I didn’t really understand its themes when I devoured the record during middle school, but today I find it ironic how an album about how isolation results in mental decay was probably enjoyed most often by lonely guys in their bedroom. The lure of isolation, of comfort, control and safety, is ultimately a road to ruin. For a society that’s never been more connected, I believe we are becoming more and more isolated, resulting in the chaos that’s currently ensuing nationwide and globally. Nationalism and hatred breed out of isolation.
We best leave our shells behind, individually and collectively, or we’re all going to be in deep shit.