“Wrong solitude vinegars the soul, right solitude oils it.” – Jane Hirshfield
When we think of the tools of an artist, we may visualize tangible elements of the worktable: brushes, typewriters, endless spools of thread and paper and canvas. However, the intangible means nearly every artist, theologian, and thinker employs is something we both crave and fear: solitude.
Many great voices have commented on solitude adding their warnings and summons. Picasso suggested that, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” Nietzsche argued that, “It is what one takes into solitude that grows there, the beast within included” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). D. W. Winnicott contended that the capacity to be alone is in fact a, “sign of maturity in emotional development.” Of all those who have weighed in on solitude, I turn to two poets who have most definitively shaped my own concept of both the tension and beauty held in this deliciously fraught practice: Jane Hirshfield and Rainer Maria Rilke.
In her book Come, Thief, two lines from a poem of Hirshfield’s prompted this blog post and the search for many more words on solitude. She writes, “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul,/ right solitude oils it.” In that simple phrasing she captures the troublesome phenomena: there are better and worse ways to go about being alone. With the same tool we can nourish ourselves, expand our capacities, and keep ourselves malleable and imaginative. By the same token, we can pickle ourselves bitter with loneliness.
As a contemporary culture, we wrestle between the polarities of infinite possibilities for connection and systemic loneliness. In this context, is it any wonder that solitude has perhaps lost its luster and value? When I think of our reticence to enter solitude, four primary questions come to mind:
- Are we more afraid of being alone, or of the chorus of voices that will meet us in the silence?
- Are we more afraid of the absence of people, or of being in our own presence?
- Are we more afraid of the quiet, or of the questions that arise there?
- Are we more afraid of stepping away from social obligation, or of hearing the call of our deep work?
Though we may seek solace, solitude can take us into places where we are both alone and not alone, quiet and cacophonous. In thinking about Hirshfield’s categories of right and wrong solitude, sketching out the characteristics of each is important for facing our fears and shaping a positive relationship to the invaluable resource.
Qualities of Right Solitude
- Right solitude isn’t free from pain or fear, but it is generative. No one can know your inner world better than you. Solitude is an important place where we are called to attend to that inner world. Our presence and attention to our private thoughts, feelings, and narratives can be life giving, even as it is harrowing. It is often the artists among us that know how to linger and dwell in difficult and hidden places with an ear pressed to meaning and a voice to give it form.
- While it may seem counterintuitive, right solitude is often a dialogical space where ideas can intersect and integrate. The root of the imagination is that place of convergence and combinatory play. It is in our solitude that we have a chance to listen to the thirdness of things; what happens in-between disciplines and ideas.
- Right solitude is seasonally contextualized, meaning it can have a variety of roles and expressions at different times in our life. Our solitude may help us to lie fallow and learn to rest. At other times it may drive us to fertile production of our best work. In the world of artists and writers, there are distinct cycles of inspiration, gestation, and production. However, nothing substitutes doing the work, and the work gets done in solitude.
Qualities of Wrong Solitude
Unhealthy patterns of behavior and relating can get expressed in our solitude as well as our relationships. When I think of “wrong solitude,” four phenomena come to mind that can undermine the richness of time alone:
- When we perpetually move toward the safety of isolation rather than risk relationship.
- When we are disempowered by old narratives that keep us from our wisdom and work.
- When the season we’re in calls for engagement with others rather than retreat.
- When we disengage and spend no time with our inner life even when no one is around.
Keen awareness of what is influencing the quality of our solitude is the first step in beginning to reclaim it and shape it for our benefit.
Protecting Solitude as an Act of Love
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us that rhythms of solitude are formed and protected by our relationships. Being alone is in fact not the antithesis of relationship, but rather the foundation of our togetherness. Rilke argues that solitude is at the heart of love, love of course being difficult. He argues, “love consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and greet each other” (Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Rome May 14, 1904). I take him to mean that a key component of our own identity formation is our capacity to enter and honor our inner world with intentionality and curiosity. It is by differentiating from others that we are able to share ourselves in communion with the glory of our particularity. The work of loving another well includes honoring and protecting their solitude. It is the tacit threads of belonging that allow us to be on our own with secure reassurance that we can take time to disconnect without leaving the connection of community.
In the process of becoming, our flourishing and personing is supported by good rhythms of both solitude and fellowship. As Dr. Pat Loughery might put it, we flourish in the ebb and flow of engagement and retreat. There is no question in my mind that we are communal creatures who are formed by and for relationship. I also believe that rhythms of right solitude, fundamentally nourish our togetherness, our creative work, and our becoming.
References for Further Reading
- Jane Hirshfield, “Vinegar and Oil” in Come, Thief, 2011.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, A Year With Rilke, Translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows, 2009.
- Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translated by M. D. Herter Norton, 2004.
- Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, 2012.
- D. W. Winnicott, (1958) The Capacity to be Alone. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 39:416-420.