When I was in my school choir, we sang the famous Mendelssohn anthem Hear my Prayer, the text of which is derived from Psalm 55.
Hör’ mein Bitten, Herr, neige dich zu mir,
auf deines Kindes Stimme habe Acht!
Ich bin allein; wer wird mein Tröster und Helfer sein?
Ich irre ohne Pfad in dunkler Nacht!
Die Feinde sie droh’n und heben ihr Haupt:
“Wo ist nun der Retter, an den ihr geglaubt?”
Sie lästern dich täglich, sie stellen uns nach
und halten die Frommen in Knechtschaft und Schmach.
Mich fasst des Todes Furcht bei ihrem Dräu’n.
Sie sind unzählige – ich bin allein;
mit meiner Kraft kann ich nicht widersteh’n;
Herr, kämpfe du für mich. Gott, hör’ mein Fleh’n!
O könnt’ ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin,
weit hinweg vor dem Feinde zu flieh’n!
in die Wüste eilt’ ich dann fort,
fände Ruhe am schattigen Ort.
In English, the last verse we sang was –
O for the wings, for the wings of a dove!
Far away, far away would I rove!
In the wilderness build me a nest,
and remain there for ever at rest.
It all seemed so solipsist, selfish and sentimental, but it struck very deeply in me. In fact, generations of monks and other special people took to the wilderness, which can be a physical place like mountains, the desert, a forest or the sea in a boat. St Aelred of Rievaux wrote at length on the Sabbath of the Soul in his Speculum Caritatis. The soul finds rest insofar as union with God is achieved and the sin of selfishness is purged away by divine grace and asceticism.
It seems like running away from reality, that reality being the noise and stress of modern urban life. I have mentioned before that my own experience of life is that of someone on the autism spectrum, especially sensitive to the negative emotions of other people. On the contrary, social media, city life and addictions are more like running away, whilst solitude is for the person who has the courage to face his strictest critic – himself.
In his play Huis clos, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote L’enfer c’est les autres (Hell is other people). The idea as intended by the French Existentialist philosopher is difficult to understand correctly. Are our relationships with others always toxic, infernal? All human beings contain what is important in ourselves for our self-knowledge. We all belong to the universal idea of the human being, but there is a vital distinction between persons. The scholastics thus distinguished between nature and person when discussing the theology of the Trinity. We are fallen and sinful, and dependence on other people will bring us to unhappiness in short order. We have to be resilient and self-reliant. We have not to compare ourselves with other people, but with ourselves the way we were yesterday. This is surely the condition of the authenticity of any intimate or social relationship. However populous the place where we live or work, we are always alone. Whether that is loneliness or solitude will depend on our awareness of our otherness as persons, the absolute impossibility of experiencing life as another person. The quality of empathy gives some insight into the emotions of another, but as “through a glass darkly” as St Paul put it. As someone with a degree of autism, I have often given thought to this impossible mystery of otherness and the lack of communication caused by weakness of perception. The autistic person or “aspie” (a term I don’t like very much) is alienated and often sickened. I am brought to think of the philosophical novel, also by Sartre, La Nausée. Nausea is a very powerful emotion by which someone would say “I am sick and tired of…”. It is a feeling that is often felt around the stomach and resembles the experience of a physical digestion malaise or a reaction from a disgusting smell like rotten meat. My own experience of anxiety will often make me feel like wanting to puke up. Sometimes, we have to take leave and go away.
The other side of the coin is that solitude can be lived positively, and we “recharge our batteries” through a week in a boat or camping in wild places. The line dividing beneficial solitude and toxic loneliness is brief. We do need some kind of relationship with those we trust like family and old friends. If we can’t be in their presence, at least we can write letters, e-mails and call them on the phone. It’s something. If our loneliness is to be converted into solitude, we need to experience God, the sacred, the spiritual.
For many years, I have worked alone to earn my living as a translator. A translation agent contacts me and ascertains my capacity to do the job. It then sends me an e-mail with the text to translate. I process the translation from French into English, using the proper technical terms, using various modern tools like Trados. I then send the file back and invoice the agent at the end of the month. No commuting! No bullying by narcissistic managers! But my day is spent in my own company with music and the jobs to do according to the deadlines given by the clients and to which I agree when I confirm the job order. Many people, including those who are not religious, have solitary jobs. Some look after a lighthouse or some area of land where people hardly ever go. I have a friend who is often alone on night shift at the port of Le Havre controlling ships entering and leaving for sea. We all need to earn a living – and offer what we have.
We are often brainwashed to confuse solitude and loneliness, to fear being alone, to perceive it as a punishment – a child being sent to his room or a prisoner being put in solitary confinement. Most people are addicted to social interaction to such an extent as any amount of solitude causes intense pain. A prisoner in the “hole” quickly goes mad, and loneliness can truly break the heart.
The glass is half-full or half-empty – or it is full of a quantity of liquid and a quantity of air. There is a difference between being alone against our will and finding ourselves alone because it is our way in life. Humans are social animals, but not always. I did have friends or playmates at school, but what I loved most was playing at camping in the garden or going fishing. It’s the way I was made and grew up. I enjoy being with friends, usually because a common interest brought us together and we empathised, but I can’t stand parties and small talk.
Solitude is a gift, and is reserved to those who have suffered and gained self-knowledge. The lonely person feels rejected and shunned, feels bitter towards the world. In solitude, a person has a relationship with himself, a kind of “two-in-one”. In my reading on psychology, I see this distinction in the comparison between borderline personality disorder (BPD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The borderline personality is empty within and needs the psychic energy provided by other persons. They feel alone and abandoned. Loneliness for them is a punishment, a judgement of their attitude and behaviour. The autistic person (high-functioning) is also alienated from the “world” because of the “bullshit factor”, the lack of integrity and constancy. After a period of acquiring self-knowledge and coming to terms, solitude becomes something positive and a bringer of happiness and peace. We can use solitude to discover our true self and therefore the immanent divinity within us, the “icon” of God given to us through our being human and illuminated by Baptism. The greatest human achievements come from men and women who worked alone in spirituality, art and technology. The music of Bach, Beethoven and Mendelssohn did not come from Germany, but from those individual persons. Genius comes from solitude. Solitude allows us to create and reach out authentically to other people, caring for their needs and desires.