This morning (upon waking? in the shower? during meditation, while Sam Harris spoke to me about conscious awareness? over breakfast?), I found myself thinking Thoreau. Passages from Walden were emerging from the memory banks where favorite books are stored. It occurred to me that if one were to grab a classic from American Literature off the shelf that might be of great use during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be Walden. In particular, the section called “Solitude.” If there was ever a prince or a king of social distancing, it would be Henry David Thoreau. This particular passage comes to me first, as he imagines what he would say to those who question his nutty project of living in the woods alone for two years:
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?
As things get more and more serious we tend to be more and more careful, and the difficulty of today was in telling our son that it would be best if his friend did not come over. She lives right down the road, is more than likely practicing her own social distancing, is likely safe to have around–but at what point can you know with any certainty that someone outside your family, no matter how trusted, is not carrying this stupid virus? What chance are you willing to take? It appears, at least today, we’re not taking chances. We’re only eight days into this thing and the chances are that it will get worse and that this conversation will get harder and harder. Us married folks, especially us long-time married folks, take each other’s company for granted, I suppose. If we had to, it probably wouldn’t kill us to be apart, but we don’t have to, and so we have each other’s company all through this thing, a huge comfort. But if you’re young and smitten, think what the prospects of weeks away from your friend might signify! The bloody end of the world as we know it. You’ll have to settle for your parents! And for solitude.
I am, I would say, a social person in small doses. I love small, intimate gatherings but I loath crowded social events–and I do love solitude. Thoreau again:
I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
I think that my son has inherited some of this from me. He’ll spend gobs of time in his room “alone.” Most of that time he is not really alone, occupied as he usually is with communications in real time with his gaming buddies. But when he practices his drumming, or when he does his homework, or when he reads, he seems content often to be alone. But this will be difficult and it will get more and more difficult. And my thoughts move from Thoreau to Rilke. In his Letters to a Young Poet, offering more advice about loving and living than he ever gives about writing, he gifts to the young poet and subsequently the entire world that famous and absolutely incalculable good advice: Hold to the difficult. Today’s reading, not a poem but a piece of prose–from a poet, a selection I hope you find as comforting as I do in times of difficulty.