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Loneliness: the art of solitude and isolation

Sep. 7, 2018
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As an introvert, solitude is a hobby. I tend to find myself isolated from any form of social setting in a place of solitary comfort—listening to music, curled up with a good book, or simply writing. I don’t have many friends, and even when I do make some I often end up withdrawing back to solitude again. I never know if it’s because of the people or I just enjoy the contentment of being alone. 

With a world that’s ever so interconnected through the internet and social media, the idea of loneliness is something not often brought up in discussion. To be visibly lonely is to be seen as “increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.” (That’s a quote from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.) So in other words, it’s a quality that’s looked down upon and shamed. There’s a certain agenda I feel most of us are obliged to follow: being validated or accepted through external connections. I believe that this allows us to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of security that our existence is valid. 

We, as people who have always relied on other people, are constantly seeking comfort and momentary happiness in each other’s platonic company. As Pema Chödrön says, “It’s like changing the position of our legs in mediation.” You’re always trying to restlessly find ways to be as comfortable as you desire; you’re looking for ways to avoid loneliness. But what if we just sat still? What if we silenced our movements and thoughts? If we just briefly stopped, what would happen? 

This is a question that writers and artists explore, cathartically, through their work. Through their expression, they challenge the stigmatization of loneliness. A great example is Edward Hopper, as mentioned by Laing, whose Nighthawk painting was described by the novelist Joyce Carol Oates as the “most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness.” Through the carefully composed composition of his painting, Hopper conceptualizes a delicate beauty in loneliness. The symbolism in his painting also prompts us to ask ourselves questions about what it means to conform to isolation. Is our disconnection to intimacy a form of solace? You can visualize that question through the three lonely people in Hopper’s painting, all of whom are sitting together at a bar but refusing to look at or speak to each other. 

There is, to an extent, an art in loneliness. For the most part, it’s an ode to creativity, as expressed by Lewis Hyde in his introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In exploring the context of Rilke’s letters, Hyde provides insight into how the writer embraced his solitude as means of “poetic practice” and how he turned what’s known as a “curse into a blessing.” He mentions that isolation was a “necessary enclosure within which he could begin to form an independent identity” following the idea that loneliness could be a valuable step to finding self-purpose. Experiencing a state of mind where it’s only you and yourself gives you the access to explore yourself mentally and physically as a person, providing you a different perspective on who you are as well as “[developing] a new cognitive relationship in your identification with the world.” 

As Hyde mentions in his introduction, there are times when, as you’re embracing your solitude, you will be inevitably faced with the obstacles of emotion. But he further explains how these are essential endeavours that benefit art, such as when Rilke tells Kappus in the letters that “sadness indicates a moment ‘when something new enters into us.’” In my personal experience, since moving to the states I’ve never felt more isolated or lonely. Falling into an abyss of melancholy and anxiety in this new environment has left me feeling numb and miserable. Yet being forced into introspection has helped me start my journey of self-love and has given me time to find my identity. 

Although the idea of being lonely sounds emotionally consuming, it’s not a two-dimensional concept as most people would assume. Relationships and having that intimate connection is important to us and our development of our character, but so is the idea of solitude. Being in touch with your inner self by putting you and only yourself forward takes courage and bravery, especially in the scrutinising climate as our society. Finding solace in yourself is a rare skill - loneliness can be a dark abyss of loss and disappointment, but to be able to encompass this and find beauty in something unvalued is truly a gift and a blessing. 

Photo by Juan Moyano via Stocksy.