By Helena Zhang
Thinking that solitude could only be found in the remotest locations, I always romanticized the idea of being whisked away to the ocean or to a lonesome log on a mountain far, far away from the frenetic world. After all, isn’t that why Thoreau spent two years of his brilliant life in a cabin, tucked away in nature’s corner?
And so, for a long time, I thought that to be flooded by the soul of things — to be completely inward — you must be physically alone in a remote place to be isolated from the noise of the world. However, how am I supposed to find the soulful inwardness of solitude when I, being a student and all, cannot whisk myself away to a version of Walden Pond? Confused as to how I would find soulful inwardness as soon as possible, I went to my professor’s office hours.
With the echoes of Thoreau’s sentiment — “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude” — in our talk, I learned that true soulful inwardness cannot be drowned by the noise of the crowd. This means that even at school, among people and noise, it is possible to be metaphorically tucked away in a cabin. And in this cabin, you can be introspective and come to understand your authentic self without the demands of those around you.
This lesson on solitude surprised me in the best possible way. I recently read a chapter in “Perfectly Yourself,” by Matthew Kelly, about how we yearn for simplicity, yet our lives often become very complicated. Before learning that the truly solitary can maintain their inwardness even amidst a crowd, I would’ve presumed that our lives become overwhelmed because we’re constantly surrounded by social media news feeds and the chatter of expectations from those around us. After all, if we’re not physically alone, doesn’t that mean we’re present in the chatter? Learning that solitude can be kept in the midst of a crowd made me realize that we can direct our attention to our inner life even when we’re living an outward life around other people. And by directing attention to our inner lives, we can figure out what we truly want and simplify our lives.
For instance, if we gain clarity about what we want, and we decide that the purpose of our life is to be the best version of ourselves with honesty as a core value, then our lives will become simpler. Besides gaining clarity on which course of action would align the most with your life’s purpose, no matter what happens — no matter how strong the temper, appetite and impulse — don’t stop using honesty as a guide to direct your daily affairs.
However, I do believe that amongst a large group of people, it is easy to distract ourselves from our inner life. After all, looking inwards is not very comfortable. We’re forced to confront whether we’ve sorted out the jumble of wants we have and whether we have built enough character, virtues and purpose. Moreover, asking “what am I here for?” is not exactly a simple question that can be resolved during a casual Friday-night dinner chat with friends. But if we turn inwards and ask ourselves what we’re here for and what our purpose is, we’ll be able to find clarity on what really matters, and life will become so much simpler. Instead of saying yes to everything and missing out on the things intended for us or complicating our lives by letting decisions and situations that don’t align with our values slide, we can find soulful, peaceful solitude anywhere we are.
There’s a painting of Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer by Rembrandt that I admire. Aristotle’s solitude is so unshakeable that I’m sure no matter how much the world around him burns and beckons, his moment of presence and simultaneous inwardness cannot be interrupted.