Friday, April 27, 2012

Loneliness vs Solitude

Following last week's post about 'being alone together,' I ran across the May edition of The Atlantic; its cover story: 'Is Facebook making us lonely?'  Turns out, it isn't, but this is an interesting read about trends toward alienation, even as we are more connected. In sum, 'Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us.  We are doing it to ourselves.  Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our action is a weak excuse.  We make decisions about about how we use our machines, not the other way around.' (p. 68)

What does it mean to be 'alone.'

In his New York Times Best Seller, Hamlet's BlackBerry, William Powers draws the distinction made by philosopher Paul Tillich between loneliness and solitude. Powers writes, "the word 'loneliness' exists to to express 'the pain of being alone,' while 'solitude' expresses 'the glory of being alone.' When we think of our greatest learning, our deepest connection with who we are, we recognize that along with elements of loneliness, we may have experienced the great 'glory' of solitude with our own self.  This reminds me of a dear friend and personal mentor, who kayaked from Washington state to Alaska alone, as he says, 'to find out if he liked the person he was traveling with.' 

The irony of new forms of self-expression is the constant tendency toward conformity.  Powers puts it well. 'Society is constantly throwing up obstacles (to solitude), telling us that we're worthless without the crowd, that everything is riding on its approval. In a country built on ideals of individual freedom and autonomy, one might think such messages wouldn't get much traction.  But freedom can be a heavy burden, and in a certain sense, the more we're responsible for managing our own destinies, the more appealing conformity becomes.' (p. 42)

I like Powers' book a lot and highly recommend it. In fact, it was the book I intended to write during my sabbatical. I proposed writing a 'practical philosophy for a connected world,' which is precisely what Hamlet's BlackBerry is.  I discovered his book about 3 months before leaving for Cambridge. Bummer!  But, better to find it before attempting to do a better job than he has done.  Besides, now I can spend more time on my blog. ;-)

For a great video on the subject of solitude vs being out there with the crowds, see Susan Cain's TED Talk on 'The Power of Introverts.'


sharon m. puckett said...

I will read the book based on your recommendation. The state of aloneness and loneliness holds different meaning to different cultures and people. There are folks who leave their television on 24 hours, not for any educational benefit, but for the distractive qualities it affords. The silence of aloneness can be frightening, so comfort is sought in such distractions. To be alone without loneliness is to be one with ones' self.

Connectivity Corner said...

Yes, Sharon, you're right. Loneliness is a complex and culturally-bound concept. I am reminded of a British friend who would seek out an isolated spot on an Italian beach, whereas the Italians thought she was crazy. Why go to the beach if there weren't LOTS of other people there.

You might also check this is the Atlantic Monthly:
Is Facebook making us lonely?

Amanda Sterling said...

I've only just come across your blog, but it is quite timely. My husband and I were discussing just this topic while out tramping on the weekend and revelling in the solitude. One of the ideas we were throwing around was the links between social media and depression. For example, most of the posts put on facebook are the fun and exciting things people are doing. It sets high ideals about what life is meant to be like and you've got to do the same to be 'liked'. What are the consequences of this pressure? A very interesting topic and I'll be having a look at that extra reading.

Connectivity Corner said...

Hi Poppy,

Sorry for the delay getting back to you, but thanks for your reflections. Thanks to my cousin Don, I have found (and linked today) a great TED Talk on the power and importance of solitude:

And, Sherry Turkle's TED Talk considers the constant revisionism that can take place on-line to create our perfect (imagined) self.

Enjoy the wilderness.