“Solitude. Sequester. Solitary confinement. I see it, not as ‘confinement’, but an opportunity in disguise. An opportunity to discover yourself.”
-Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The official definition of solitude is, “A state of seclusion or isolation, specifically a lack of contact with people”.
I love being alone. Over the years, some have gone as far as labeling me a loner. There has always been a correlation made between solitude and loneliness. In this sense, these two terms can be related to the joy and pain of being alone. I choose to focus on the joy.
There are so many benefits to spending time alone. Foremost, you have freedom. This is a freedom from the constraints of others, giving us an opportunity to do things we truly want. This can also be a springboard in sparking creativity, a concept I found illustrated by a photographer named Chris Burkard. Chris began his career as any starving, aspiring artist would by interning, working odd jobs and building his portfolio with a dream. He eventually became a staff photographer at Surfer Magazine. “It was my dream job, so I thought.”, Burkard recalls. “For years, I met my required quotas by shooting at the most crowded and exploited destinations on the planet. Eventually, it just wasn’t fulfilling to me. I felt empty, lonely.” Burkard took two months off, thinking he was suffering from burnout. Taking advice from a friend, he went to Iceland, followed by an accidental voyage to Antarctica. “I went days without seeing anybody, just exploring and shooting the most inexplicable beauty I had ever seen. That was my inner light bulb going off. It was during that time alone where I truly discovered my potential as an artist.” Today, Chris Burkard owns two galleries, gives seminars and is a senior photographer for National Geographic.
Kelly Slater is the most recognized figure in professional surfing history. He has always been forthcoming about his fear of being alone. In any public forum I had seen or read about, Slater always had and entourage. Whether he wanted it or not, it was always there. “I always had people around me… and then, I lost. I had won the World Title 7 out of the first 10 years I was on the World Tour. In 2002, I went on a 3 year losing streak, and people began to write me off. Best and worst thing that ever happened to me.” I have always claimed that being alone can be therapeutic to the soul. Slater maintains that the solitude resulting from his competitive losses is where he discovered what the most important parts of his life were. “As a champion, I became so accustomed, nearly spoiled by the wave of attention that surrounded me. When I lost, those people were gone, everyone. For the first time in my career, I was alone. Losing, being alone… that’s where the good stuff happens, the good stuff inside. It’s where you discover the most important part of yourself. It finally wakes you up to the great things you were never paying attention to.”
The takeaway from Kelly Slater is the self discovery that solitude gives us. More importantly, it provides a clear vision of what really matters to us individually. In a strange way, solitude empowers us to eliminate the nonsense in our lives.
“Today’s society, people can’t be alone. They have an imperative need of company for fear of loneliness, even if that company is a group of complete strangers.”
-Pat Curren, Big wave surfing pioneer
Years ago, I spent quite a bit of time in Tokyo, Japan. As possibly the most crowded city on the planet, I was puzzled that I had started to become lonely, something very new to me. I regard myself as the most solitary person that I know, yet secluded deep in the crowded nucleus of cities like Shibuya and Akasaka, I was feeling alone. Flip the coin: I have also spent an obscene amount of time surfing by myself in Baja, Mexico. Seventeen hours deep into Baja, there were days when I felt like I was the only person within 500 miles. Human interaction was so rare, and when it did occur, it was very brief… and I loved it. For a reason that still remains mysterious to me, I felt more alone in Japan than I ever did in Mexico. Sequestering yourself among people you have never met can be more isolating than pure solitude.
Neil Peart is regarded as the most gifted percussionist of the modern rock era. For a person so adored by fans and peers, Peart has often been criticized for his shy nature among people he has never met. He has always contended, “I understand that my musical contributions have had a substantial effect on people at some part of their lives. Any form of adulation toward me is not upsetting, it’s just embarrassing to me. I would never want to trample on it, but I also don’t want to live it.”
Like many other public figures who have fascinated me, I became curious about Peart’s story and what life experiences added to his stoic character. The most intriguing and touching event happened in the Spring of 1999. Over the course of only 3 months, Peart lost his daughter in a car accident, and his wife to cancer. He explains, “While it was a time where people knew they had to at least tip-toe around me, my bandmates and close friends never let me out of their sights. I don’t think they were comfortable with what I did." As tragic as his tale of misfortune was, Peart’s chosen path to remedy himself is what spoke to me the most. Neil Peart chose solitude. He bought a motorcycle and went on, as he puts it, “A quest to lose myself, so I could eventually find myself.” For three months, Peart isolated himself from the world, riding solo through the mountains of South America and Mainland Mexico. “I would send ‘lifelines’, a postcard every few weeks, but I was alone the entire time. No emails, no phone calls, nothing. I visited the deepest, darkest places that you can go as a human being, and I had to do it alone. That journey saved my life.”
Solitude is therapeutic to us on the inside. It gives us the reflection we need when it is time to start over.
“I am alone, but I am not lonely.”