The Great Power of Solitude

“Men frequently say to me, “I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially.” I am tempted to reply to such — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments?Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?”

In March 1845, Henry David Thoreau started to build a small house near Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts. The house stood on the side of a hill just on the edge of the woods. It was a small cabin, ten by fifteen, with enough room for only a bed, a desk and a brick fireplace. The cabin appears spacious enough, perhaps about the size of a university dorm room.

The land Thoreau was building on belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two were good friends and Emerson funded many of Thoreau’s works. He had urged Thoreau to contribute his essays to a quarterly periodical, The Dial, and even lobbied the editor, Margaret Fuller, to publish those writings. Emerson’stranscendentalism was particularly influential for Thoreau, especially the idea that there exists a spiritual state that transcends the physical and that can only be achieved through personal intuition.

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Thoreau cut timber from white pine trees to make the foundations for his cabin. He had even studied masonry so he could build a chimney in preparation for the winter months. Thoreau was proud of his efforts and reflected that the chimney was strong enough to endure a long time. It took Thoreau just four months to build his little cabin. He began to occupy it in July 1845, although it was not completely finished, he still had to plaster the walls and the ceiling, but it did at least provide shelter against the rain.

The cabin was not too far from Concord, about a half hour walk, and the lake had regular visitors throughout each season. Thoreau even entertained many guests during his stay. It was, however, a fair distance away from the racket and commotion of the city. Henry Thoreau had intended to move as far into nature as he could and thought Walden Pond a good enough spot to settle. He had visited the lake during his childhood and it would forever remain a sacred place in his heart.

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For Thoreau, the cabin was an active attempt to live “deliberately”, to fold life to its core truths and discover himself amongst nature. He wanted to drive life into a corner, rather than resign himself and allow his life to chance without his accord. Solitude, then, was his answer, a weapon against the voices of the desperate masses and an amplifier of his own melody. Thoreau would discover the true power of solitude during the two-years he stayed at Walden pond. He became a great messenger, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the beauty that solitude provides for the soul and he would later write of his experiences in his book, ‘Walden’.

It should be noted that what Henry Thoreau means by solitude is not isolation. Perhaps surprisingly, Thoreau had many friends and was by no means a social hermit. It has little to do with the physical distance of neighbours since, as he wrote in his essay ‘Solitude’, he has often been lonely when he does not feel a connection with his guests. Rather, solitude is much more about introspection and self-observation. The challenge of living alone was really just learning how to become a great companion to oneself.

‘Walden’ was first published in 1854 and it is a terrific reflective account of his time spent living simply and in natural surroundings. For Thoreau, man has only four necessities: food, shelter, clothing and fuel. If you are lucky enough to have been awarded all four, then Thoreau thought that you should turn your focus inward rather than chase the excess of each of the four necessities. Deep personal introspection, Thoreau believed, is the true gift of the prosperous man and one that the majority have entirely avoided.

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There are fewer places, it seems, where one might seek silence. Our time is an Age of Noise; people are desperate to have their voices listened to, or at the very least heard. Noise is a currency, it is how we get the attention of others and we fear that if we were to become silent we shall simply be left behind.

We have, at present, a people who are afraid to speak to themselves, a people who are unable to trust the voice within and instead are persuaded to seek sanction from others. It is much easier to shout the words that conform than to sit quietly by yourself and listen to the incessant voices inside.

“The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert. The farmer can work alone in the field or the woods all day, hoeing or chopping, and not feel lonesome, because he is employed; but when he comes home at night he cannot sit down in a room alone, at the mercy of his thoughts, but must be where he can “see the folks,” and recreate, and, as he thinks, remunerate himself for his day’s solitude; and hence he wonders how the student can sit alone in the house all night and most of the day without ennui and “the blues”; but he does not realize that the student, though in the house, is still at work in his field, and chopping in his woods, as the farmer in his, and in turn seeks the same recreation and society that the latter does, though it may be a more condensed form of it.”

To be alone is a frightening idea, one that people will do anything to avoid. When we are lonely in our homes, we make sure there is always a friend to message, a television for distraction and an excess of food to numb the senses. People continue having never had a conversation with themselves, nor ever questioning the voice that speaks through them.

Every culture across the world has its own relationship with solitude. Each holds to the value of prayer and reflection, yet the majority in the West has abandoned this knowledge. We have refused the responsibility of facing the fear that lies inside and instead have chosen to preoccupy ourselves with mindless companionship.

The search into your heart requires that you are alone. Put yourself in a place, as Thoreau did, where no one is able to speak into you, and you will find yourself isolated and unaided. You will be encouraged to seek within and scramble amongst the depth of your soul. This will be an unpleasant experience, you may find resentment and anger, but face it, stare through the shadows and you will come back on the other side. You will have cleared the dirt and filth, allowing space for joyfulness and peace.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

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You will come to understand yourself, your true authentic self, not the wishes of society. In solitude, you will not find loneliness, but self-communion, a coming together of the light and the dark aspects of yourself. Here, you will be able to insist upon yourself for relationship, ethical leadership and courage rather than delegate such powers elsewhere. In other words, you will become self-reliant and will not seek others for attachment.

Henry Thoreau dares us to be genuine to our nature, to remove the many material distractions others pressure onto us and to trust our deepest intuition.

harry stead