A lot has already been said about the differences between isolation and solitude, confinement and privacy, loneliness and being alone. The first term in each set suggests a negative situation imposed against one’s will or desire, while the second seems far more positive and far more a choice. All but the most extreme extroverts (or sociopaths) wish to be alone at least some of the time—and if you don’t believe me, get on a bus and sit next to a stranger when there’s a perfectly good empty row further down the aisle. (I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. It’s just weird and wrong.)
Yet in a time when almost everyone seems to be living at least part of their lives before an online audience, I begin to wonder just how much we still value these concepts. Yes, a whole lot has already been said about the way social media have turned us into a population nearly incapable of doing anything for its own sake. There’s not much point in my adding to that lot, especially on a public blog meant in part to depict aspects of my life for an online audience. Still, though, it’s worth considering just how rare a thing true solitude has become.
When I stepped out into the yard this morning, I realized: I’m alone. That’s not terribly strange by itself, but the thing is I’m really alone. Our property is surrounded on all sides by farmland, and this year three of the four sides are walls of corn. Even though the fourth side is a soybean field and not nearly so private, the closest property is almost a mile away. Nobody is around to see me or hear me. This has never been true of any place I’ve lived since I was a very young child. Solitude tends to be something we have to seek in a room with the door closed; if we want solitude outside, we have to leave home. And then of course we’re back to social media; in the room with the door closed, if being alone ever devolves into loneliness, we can always connect online. Away from home, we can take comfort in knowing we’re just a selfie away from sharing this moment with others.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are social. Loneliness sucks. But it occurs to me that perhaps what we really lose when true solitude becomes scarce isn’t the chance to escape other people so much as the ability to escape ourselves. Social media isn’t simply about showing our lives to the world; it also means creating an image of our lives for our own viewing. That’s nothing new; we’re always creating one persona or another in different situations, even if the situation is simply trying to make sense of who we are. Yet despite the fact that it would seem like our every waking moment is spent broadcasting our words and images to the world, the truth is still that most of the time we spend on earth passes by unnoticed, unremarked upon, and ultimately forgotten. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. In fact, I find it can be a very good thing.
The expert through-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis noted in her memoir about hiking the Appalachian Trail that in the woods, there are no mirrors. What this means is that in the wilderness, you are your actions, not your appearance. Everyone out there looks like they haven’t changed clothes or bathed in weeks, because they haven’t. Something about this appeals to me—well, not so much the non-bathing part, but definitely the part about actions over appearance. I’ve always been troubled by the expression “making memories”; there’s something disturbing about experiencing a moment mainly for the purpose of looking back on it later. I do believe the unexamined life is, if not completely worthless, at least less interesting. But you can take examination too far, to the point where the experience itself is less important than the image you create of it.
A lot of what I see posted online focuses on what we see when we look in the mirror. Ours is a society that thrives on making people feel inferior for one reason or another, so for some people it becomes crucial for survival to combat this with an assertion of self-worth. I get it, believe me. At the same time, I think equal emphasis should be placed on also looking out the window, and then out the door, and then walking out the door and being in the world, even if you never share that experience with anyone. Quite a lot happened while I was out in the yard this morning, and yet really almost nothing did—nothing worth a tweet or a selfie, not even worth more than a fleeting mention in this blog. That’s valuable to me.