the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

On Solitude I

As I mentioned in my review of Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, the chapter on solitude - "Spend Time Alone", took me by surprise.

I'm happy to be a hermit at the best of times, and I started the chapter thinking "Solitude. Yep!" because I was expecting the book to tell me that what I already liked doing was good for me and that I should keep doing it. Except... it didn't.

Newport uses a much stricter definition of solitude, taken from one of the books which seem to comprise a small body of pro-solitude 'literature'. The book defines solitude as:

A subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds.

In other words, solitude means being alone with your thoughts, with nothing to intrude on them.

It's not solitude if you're in input mode. Reading a book. Or watching TV, or listening to a podcast. Or music. Or browsing a website, or doing many of the things people often do during 'quiet time.' Quiet time might be good for you, but it isn't solitude.

Does it matter? The book (drawing from said 'literature') lists all sorts of benefits: creativity, focus, relationships, allowing your mind to work through important issues, moral dilemmas, recharging, mental balance, all that good stuff. A bit like social and existential sleep, if you will.

And yet, we live in a world where headphones and devices are everywhere and always at hand, and the average Westerner has less solitude than ever. The tube and trains and cars and streets and homes are full of people, often solitary, but starved of solitude.

This caused some re-appraising for me. I do experience solitude, even by the strict definition, but far less than I thought. Yes, I've always enjoyed being alone, but how often was I alone? I pondered the definition. Music? Really? Music!? What if there's no singing? Classical music? Was I being too strict in my interpretation of the meaning of input mode, or was I just trying to fudge my way around it? I wasn't about to delete the mp3s from my phone, but as with all the other parts of the declutter, I was open to seeing where Cal's advice would take me.

(Aside: it wasn't long before before Cal Newport became just 'Cal' at home, especially as I bored Ronwen to death with my experiences. "You know, Cal has an opinion about that", "Cal knows", "trust Cal", "no, I don't know where your mp3 player is but Cal says it's good for you to go for a run without it... seriously, just try it. For Cal". "Ok, I will. For Cal", etc. Nobody has yet said "well you know what Cal can go do" but, you never know).

Where was I? Yes, reappraisal.

For example, one of my gripes about my less-regular-than-it-should-be cycling to work was how boring I found it, especially because while I might be crazy enough to cycle in London traffic, I'm not crazy enough to cycle in London traffic with earphones on. Don't want to cycle, boring, I could be on the train reading a book, moan moan moan, so booooring. And here was the book, telling me to embrace it. My new open-minded, reappraising self got to thinking about it. The truth is, being on the bike and letting my mind wander was always part of cycling for me, and it had bothered me less in the past. So instead of seeing it as a bad thing, I realised that maybe I should just be trying to see things differently.

And, I did, and it helped. I can't say why, and I wouldn't say I bounce onto the bike thrilled at the prospect of keeping myself company for an hour and a half, but my attitude is now different, and attitude matters.

{2019.10.19 15:01}

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