Many people often associate solitude with loneliness, but not Mary Sarton, author of the book, Journal of a Solitude. In her book she argues that in fact, “Solitude is the salt of personhood.” After telling a story about a friend of hers who was surprised to discover that he actually enjoyed doing something by himself, she explains that contrary to the fears people have about solitude, the discovery of oneself actually is quite rewarding. She argues that we tend to not notice our own perception in activities when we involve ourselves with others because we are so focused on the other person. She explains her metaphor by saying that just like salt brings out the flavor of food, so does doing things alone “bring out the authentic flavor of every experience”(1). Salt enhances the natural flavor of an item, but perhaps we don’t notice the natural flavor of an experience or of ourselves because we are always with other people who by their very presence add additional and unnatural elements, tainting the flavor of the experience or changing it completely. She further argues that because “solitude is the salt of personhood,” we are not actually alone; we are involved with ourselves and our experience and are able to enjoy those experiences without anyone else tainting our perception of them. Further demonstrating the point for example, she shows how if music is heard with others, then we are experiencing both—not the music by itself.
She gives examples of the further rewards of solitude by elaborating with her own life; she can do what she wants when she wants and not have anyone else disrupt her plans or lack thereof. She is quick to defend her argument that solitude is not loneliness, however—arguing instead that “alone is never lonely,” but instead loneliness actually comes from being around other people, which she says at some point leads to a disconnect or conflict which hurts us, drains us, or perhaps just over works and makes us feel vulnerable and so we “lose” ourselves (1-2). She explains that when this happens to her, she has a momentary period of loneliness when she leaves those people or job because she lost herself when around them, so when she returns home, she has to slowly find herself again through experiencing the pleasures of her home and setting while alone where she can privately reflect on and learn from the experience she had with others. While I believe she does a fantastic job at explaining the beautiful and rewarding experience we can have when alone without loneliness, I also believe that she over-criticizes companionship and neglects the rewards that come from expressing our thoughts to others and learning from them as well—experiences that also help loneliness.
Her arguments about the rewards of solitude definitely resonate truth in my life. I have often found myself reenergized and ready to face the world again by spending time by myself, listening to melancholy or nostalgic music, and reflecting on the circumstances in my life—both good and bad, while writing out my thoughts through blogging or through poetry. Sometimes I never even share these writings because they are often not meant for anyone else to read. They are for me. I feel purged of the impurities that come from the stresses in and excitement in life, and I am able to just think without others comments or suggestions or ideas to muddy up my own thoughts. I have even had moments when someone has walked in or called, and I have felt frustrated by the interruption. I don’t think I could enjoy my life without these special moments with just me and my music.
Still, that does not mean that companionship is all-together tainting as Sarton suggests. To me, sometimes having someone there to talk to and to listen to can be very rewarding and can make me feel just as fulfilled and not lonely as I would by myself—but in a different way. I recall one of the happiest moment with my husband and truly appreciating the rewards that came from our relationship. One night, we sat on the couch drinking wine and taking turns playing our favorite songs from our past. Rock ballads from Dashboard Confessional, Pearl Jam, Alanis Morisette, Sublime, Green Day, The Cure saturated the air that night and intoxicated us with memories from our lives. We’d play the song for each other and then tell stories about what we were going through in our lives when that song was the song we put on repeat in our stereos. We laughed, we cried. We learned about each other through the soundtracks of our youth. And we were able to share thoughts and feelings freely, without condemnation or criticism from the other. It felt good to be so understood. And so loved. Not only did I not feel lonely in those moments, I felt fulfilled in knowing that I was understood by my husband and loved.
Sure, companionship can also lead to conflict and loneliness as Sarton suggests, but there are benefits to that as well. We can learn from those with whom we have conflicts and in turn, become better people ourselves from those lessons. My husband and I have had our fair share of conflicts, but it is through them that I have learned that I can be selfish and I can be disrespectful. If I did most activities alone and avoided getting married to live a life of solitude, sure I might be happy doing what I want when I want, but in those moments when I was with others I would not realize that I also hurt others. Close relationships with others bring honesty. And sometimes the truth can hurt. But it can also heal. My close friend once gave a great metaphor to explain the benefits of conflict with marriage—she said that marriage is like rubbing two rough and jagged rocks together over and over again. Overtime, the rocks become as smooth and round as river rock. My husband teaches me to put a little more thought into my words before I speak. He teaches me the love that comes through self-sacrifice. And to me that not only makes me a better person, but it makes this world a better place.
I think to be a well-rounded person, we need do need to embark on adventures alone and discover the unchartered territory of ourselves and of the experiences in our lives as we alone see it–as Sarton argues. But at the same time, to express ourselves and learn from others through the times we feel understood and even the times we feel lonely. To avoid that, strikes me as either selfish or terribly timid.