Something happened this spring and summer. I’m not sure what exactly, but the end result was that I suddenly had far less time to be alone, in solitude. Too much of my life lately has been spent as an extrovert, and I, an introvert, have become worn out over it all.
There is a tricky balance to this, a moderation which feeds the soul an appropriate measure of activity and rest, interaction and introspection, acting and thinking. I have noticed that if I don’t get this formula just right and it stays out of line for awhile, I get cranky. Maybe it doesn’t even take that much: the mere sight of a stack of books which should have been finished by now is enough to make me feel jittery.
After a summer filled with distractions—some more healthy and more enjoyable than others—July came and went, and there I stood last Saturday, staring down August, the Sunday Afternoon of Summertime. “If I’m going to get any rest this year,” I thought to myself, “it’s now or never.” So I went into lockdown mode: few commitments, less electronic communication, and no more rushing around all afternoon so that I can make some dinner invitation or other early in the evening. June and July vanished in distraction; August belongs to me.
It only took about four days before the first inquiries started coming in from friends. “Are you bored with us or angry at us?” These are people who socialize every night, from the time they finish work until the time they go home. If you’ll forgive the obvious, they must be extroverts, and in my experience extroverts do not, in general, understand the need for introverts to be alone, to sit in solitude. Nor do they understand the fact that we can sit and watch a conversation for an hour without saying anything and be perfectly happy. “Are you ok?” people ask. Quite perfectly fine, in fact; it’s just that I have nothing to add to this conversation—though just as often as not the truth of the matter is that what I have to add would get me in more trouble than it’s worth, so I sit, quietly minding my own business, which seems to be a lost art these days.
Socializing is hard work for me. Outside of my usual orbit of friends, I find it to be exhausting. If I discover that someone is boring, I am terrible at making small talk. Sometimes it’s just easier to let them ramble and to pretend I’m paying attention. But this uses up vital energy. I have been out for dinners in which I could barely finish each bite before being introduced to someone else, and the gentle, cool breeze that blows from my demeanor in these instances always seems to surprise people. Cavorting is the norm these days; most don’t seem to understand that some people just want to eat their freaking dinner.
You might think at this point that I am afraid of intimacy, but the situations which make me uncomfortable are far from intimate. They are filled with perfunctory hellos and idle chatter, and maybe every now and then someone lapses into Male Pattern Lecturing and says something worth listening to, until the unapproving glances come out and everyone is reminded that the purpose of being with one’s fellow man is to be as diffuse and distracted as possible. I roll my eyes furtively. Sometimes I get caught, but it never bothers me. Of course, no one wants a lecturer at a dinner either, but—well, I think you understand what I’m trying to say. Between lecturing and chatter, we have lost the art of pleasant dinner conversation.
Maybe I’m digressing a bit now. Suffice it to say that my life would probably be easier if I could just say, “I wish to be alone.” But I haven’t the chutzpah, apparently. I’m afraid that people will be offended, or that they’ll dote on me, thinking that surely something must be wrong if I want to be alone. The fact is that most people are offended in these situations, and it is because we have not cultivated solitude. I play the organ in a church, and sometimes I have to remind myself not to play through every moment of silence in the liturgy, since the next five minutes could be the only silence some people get for the entire week.
As I see it, we go out into the world, and it is inevitable that, to one extent or another, it pulls us apart. People make demands, work deadlines loom, the children scream. We become unraveled. Somehow, we have to put the pieces of ourselves back together, and the glue, I am convinced, is solitude. I can attest that I have never felt the pangs of my conscience, or desired to seek wisdom, or had any creative idea worth a damn, amidst distraction. Solitude is what brings these gifts.
I have said too much already. Garrison Keillor has probably said it better than I have.