In this Age of Deceit marked by the collapse of traditional American values, and in anticipation of the next twelve months which, no doubt, will be the weird weirder weirdest of the Trump presidency, I am going to share a series of posts drawn from my forthcoming book from a chapter titled “Steel Thyself.” It aims to provide some tools to regain a sense of responsible individualism in an era that has been overwhelmed by narcissism; a sense of individualism that is one of three of what I call America’s Probity Values, the other two being exemplar exceptionalism (leading by example) and perfectibility (leaving things better than the way we found them). I anticipate four posts in this series; one each week.
An effective and accessible place to begin strengthening the head and heart—steeling thyself—is with what the psychiatrist Anthony Storr called the “capacity to be alone” such that we might access the redemptive power of solitude. Our personal cognetic systems (the self-curated constellation of knowledge and beliefs that allow us to simplify the world and make decisions) provides a tool to “know thyself,” which is a critical step in understanding one’s blind spots of ignorance as well as blind spots of certitude—to both reduce ignorance and subdue certitude to enable better decisions. The next step, after knowing thyself, is to steel thyself—to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses against the uncertainties and threats of the modern era. Practicing solitude provides the opportunity for honest conversations with the self in a risk-free environment setting aside the judgments of others to enable the honesty and clarity necessary to improve one’s prospects of fulfilling one’s purpose(s) in life.
The French Renaissance philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, started his long periods of solitude with the query, “What do I know?”[i] In this question, he starts by taking stock of himself then proceeds to dissolve himself of all attachments to persons, things, duties and grievances to seek a clarity of mind where old truths may be reaffirmed or discarded, and new truths revealed; to sort out and update his “What do I know?” list. In effect, such periods of introspection allow a reboot of body and soul, allowing a fresh start to the rest of one’s life. In children, we know that the capacity to be alone is “linked with self-discovery and self-realization; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings, and impulses,” yet in the modern era as adults we have ignored this powerful capacity by allowing incessant interactions and distractions (now mostly electronic) that produce more noise than knowledge, more anxiety than equanimity.[ii] In a return to the self, one might smell the vestiges of narcissism, but in reality the absence of attachments during solitude allows us to strip ourselves of narcissistic self-deceptions to begin anew with a clear-eyed view of who we are and, moreover, who we would like to be. We are, indeed, who we are; that much is self-evident. But, we also need to build the runway that allows us to become what we want to be, unburdened by obsolete injunctions and tired conceits. Practicing periods of introspection allows the mind—our most powerful tool—to refresh, and as necessary heal, our soul.
Sounds fairly simple, right? It is, until one has to actually do it. Solitude summits (or retreats if you prefer, although where I live we prefer to “summit” rather than “retreat”) require a commitment to the self that is seldom easy until it becomes a routine built into your life-expectations and the expectations of those who rely upon you. There are a million-and-one reasons to procrastinate about, or otherwise ignore, a commitment to solitude. Feelings of indispensability to work and family (and guilt born therefrom) are the most common hurdles. Others just can’t conceive of being alone as they mistakenly equate being alone to being lonely. However, once you grant yourself the indulgence of solitude you will realize that everyone in your life will benefit (perhaps even more than you). Your clarity and equanimity have a way of bolstering the well-being of everyone in your orbit. Begin by creating a “Matters for My Consideration” file in which you place things you need to think about during your next solitude summit. Allow your interests to be your guide. Schedule solitude at a time and place that suits those interests. This alignment of interests assures a level of comfort that supports your quest for renewal and, they emanate from your cognetic system which makes them legitimate inasmuch as they are of you; honor them.
Your solitude may involve travel from home, although travel is not always necessary; solitude may be accomplished anywhere the mind can achieve a sense of quiet reflection that allows you to critically review your traditional knowns and creatively imagine prospective knowns. A park bench, or a long walk may suit as well as a journey. Question all the givens in your life while favoring dynamism over stasis. Initially, allow for longer periods of reflection then, as your solitude skills improve, schedule shorter and more frequent periods of solitude to refresh your soul. Beyond reflection and rebooting your knowns, periods of solitude may also recalibrate your compass—the aims and trajectory of your life. It will also call to question your relationships—those you should continue to nurture and those you should abandoned. Holding on to extraneous knowns, objectives and destinations, or relationships that are no longer relevant or productive, are an effective way to die while living. The most important measure of success during solitude is the degree of honesty you employ toward yourself. This is most commonly referred to as being “true to yourself.” Seeing things as they are—especially during times of high deceit like today—may be solitude’s greatest gift.
Next week: Mindful Meditation.
[i] See “Michel de Montaigne: On Solitude,” The Culturium, October 7, 2016, https://www.theculturium.com/michel-de-montaigne-on-solitude/.
[ii] Anthony Storr, Solitude: A Return to the Self (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 21.