By Fenton Johnson, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing, Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Faculty
I spend part of these quiet days imagining how we will be together again. Is it possible that, once shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted, life will resume exactly as before? A dear friend, a Holocaust survivor, once pointed at the news on television and said flatly, “You see these things and you know we have learned nothing.” But I am an American, imbued with American mythology, and cannot so easily let go of the notion that we might learn from experience.
An infinitesimal scrap of RNA—some biologists do not consider it alive, since it has no central nervous system and, like crystals, is capable only of reproducing itself—has brought to the forefront what we so assiduously devote ourselves to obscuring: our essential solitude. An author friend writes to ask if I believe that, as a result of this crisis, Americans will finally learn to be alone. Another friend—a well-known author—receives a copy of my most recent book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, and responds with an email that begins, “I’m sorry you’re lonely.”
Her conflation of solitude and loneliness is commonplace and nearly ubiquitous in COVID commentaries about the psychological health of those suddenly mandated to “self-isolate.” Yet the word “lonely” is virtually unique to English. The Dalai Lama had to have the concept explained to him. Neither French nor Italian offers an equivalent. In those languages there is only la solitude / la solitudine, a state considered at once universal and nourishing, an affirming embrace of an existential fact. “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” writes William Wordsworth in 1807, envisioning solitude as life-bestowing majesty.
What, then, gave rise to the most common English usage of “lonely,” namely, “dejected for want of companionship”? That meaning dates to 1811, and arises with the deforestation and industrialization of England and the mass dislocation of people from the countryside to factories.
Given those origins, to visualize “lonely,” I think not of a wandering cloud but of commuters crammed at rush hour into subway cars or alone in an automobile, stalled amid toxic fumes on a sea of cement with thousands of others. Or of friends and students, walking down the sidewalk lost in their phones, oblivious to the amazing spectacle of the world right at hand. There is so much to celebrate each morning, starting with the first breath we take and the wisp of cloud or wing of bird we see or bit of sound we hear. Eliminating “loneliness” from your vocabulary goes a long way toward reconceiving oneself as a solitary.
Might we use this quiet time not to binge watch HBO but to turn inward and ask: What kind of species, nation, state, and city or town do we want? What kind of person do I want to be and how do I go about cultivating that? Because each of the first four categories is an expression of the last. Each ultimately depends on our individual engagement with ourselves in solitude.
Here’s a starting place: Read the Trappist monk and mystic Thomas Merton’s short essay Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude, followed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s remarkable defense of women’s rights The Solitude of Self, among our most eloquent testimonials to every person’s fundamental solitude, written by a contentedly married, mother-of-seven suffragette. Then figure out something you will do, once we are liberated, other than stay busy. Conceive a task or undertaking for which “busy” might be a side product but is not a destination.
For coupled people this is a particular challenge, because partnering is an inherent diversion and since helping the mate is so easy and self-contained. In this, solitaries have a great advantage.
Risk solitude, because here as elsewhere the reward is commensurate with the risk. For young people, consider having fewer children, or no children—right here, right now the single most selfless gift one may offer the planet. Then set about imagining a life of service to your fellow creatures. Risk making art. Risk writing. For this is what my years living alone have taught me, this much I know for sure: The imagination thrives in solitude.
Sit down, shut up, still yourself to the silence of what is. Then put pen to paper, or brush to canvas, or fingers to instrument, secure in the knowledge that in the great, mysterious, intricately interconnected universe, your art is one way you help the stranger.
Fenton Johnson‘s most recent book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, was released this Spring by W.W. Norton. He is the author of The Man Who Loved Birds (University Press of Kentucky), which was published concurrently with new editions of his earlier award-winning novels Scissors, Paper, Rock and Crossing the River. He has published as well Geography of the Heart: A Memoir and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks. His collection of essays Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays was selected for the Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature published by Sarabande Press. Going It Alone: On the Dignity and Challenge of Solitude (W.W. Norton), based on his most recent Harper’s Magazine cover essay, was published in 2018. Geography received the American Library Association and Lambda Literary Awards for best LGBT Creative Nonfiction, while Keeping Faith received a Lambda Literary and Kentucky Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. Johnson has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air and writes regularly for Harper’s Magazine. For more information: www.fentonjohnson.com.