Off the Shelf: On Solitude

Locked up for the past however-many-months-it-has-been-now my sources of inspiration has been pretty limited. Luckily I have a well stocked bookshelf with plenty still unread that’s kept me busy. Alot of the authors on my shelves have a lot of interesting things to say so I thought, why not share them!

This post will be part of a new mini-series where I take a few favorites off my shelves and share quotes from them. I’ll be picking a general topic each time that feels relevant to me in the moment. Hopefully a few of you will be inspired to pick up a copy of a few of these books for yourself or just take solace in the words of past generations (I’ll leave links to my versions of every book I quote).

I think solitude is the perfect topic to start off with given our current shared loneliness. Yet, we should consider ourselves lucky being surrounded by technology that allows us to reach across the world and speak to our loved ones. Some of the men I will quote lived in ages where it was common for them to be away from family and home from months or years at a time with only letters for communication.

Marcus Aurelius spent the best part of his later life in a tent on campaign away from his family. Living in a foreign land, surrounded by unfamiliar faces creates its own form of solitude as Dante knew well after being exiled from his mother city Florence. War, exile, political instability, and yes – even plagues have driven men apart. Throughout history that longing for home is a universal human trait…

Thank you for writing so often.

By doing so you give me a glimpse of yourself in the only way you can. I never get a letter from you without instantly feeling we’re together. If pictures of absent friends are a source of pleasure to us, refreshing the memory and relieving the sense of void with a solace however insubstantial and unreal, how much more so are letters, which carry marks and signs of the absent friend that are real.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, writings to Lucilius c. 65CE

Texting is not the same as the written word. As Seneca states, the handwriting, the smell of paper, the subtleties that cannot be expressed in computer generated text. Send a letter to someone your missing and brighten their day! I assure you they will thank you far more for the effort than if you’d just e-mailed or texted them.

You’ll leave behind you all you hold most dear.

And this will be the grievous arrow bard

that exile, first of all, will shoot your way.

And you will taste the saltiness of bread

when offered by another’s hand – as, too,

how hard it is to climb a stranger’s stair.

Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XVII

It was a uniquely Florentine tradition not to use salt in the baking of their bread among the various city states of Italy. So when a Florentine traveled, the first thing he often noticed was the saltiness of bread.

Solitude is, in a way, the absence of recollection. When we are detached from people we know our neural network is restricted – take away a homeland and all it’s familiarity and suddenly one finds themself looking at the world with childish eyes once more. When we are homesick is it not those very memories built over a lifetime that are scrambling for our attention? Desperate not to be forgotten?

It is the business of the very few to be independent; it is a privilege of the strong. And whoever attempts it, even with the best right, but without being obliged to do so, proves that he is probably not only strong, but also daring beyond measure.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Use this time to strengthen yourself. Perhaps “without being obliged” does not apply but that does not mean you cannot learn more about yourself and build courage in this brief moment.

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time. But where can one find the solitude necessary to vigour, the deep breath in which the mind collects itself and courage gauges its strength?

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and other Essays, The Minotaur or The Stop in Oran

Find peace in solitude. A silent moment allows our senses to realign and coalesce them into memory. Nature, even if just a garden, has a way of drawing us back to ourselves and detaching the web of unwanted attachments that we are often tangled with navigating the shark-infested waters of modern life.

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