It turns out I love solitude almost as much as I love people and prize it mostly because it is so rare. It’s not that on this weekend at home alone I won’t see and interact with other people. I’ll get my haircut, play golf and attend a poetry reading. But none of the people there will or can make a claim on me. I’ll be free from the threat of failing them in some way. For me to be important to the people I love means I may disappoint them and though I know I do that all the time (I hope in mostly small ways), the imminence of it weighs on me. That as far as I know I’ve been forgiven is some compensation but to be free of the threat for a few days feels liberating.
I’m pretty sure this has less to do with my current family than the one I grew up with. Eileen, Kaitlin, Meghan, Sebastian and Seth do not require or expect the kind of heroics it seemed the family I grew up in required. That family with my drunk, bipolar mom reeling and my disengaged dad raging was always on the brink of cataclysm and somehow I got the idea that I was supposed to save them.
It’s not that I came to this entirely on my own. My parents gave me and I’m sure my two elder sisters inordinate responsibility for our disabled youngest sister. And my aunt famously told me and whoever else would listen that she knew I would never let anything bad happen to my siblings.
Perhaps this issue of carrying the threat of letting down the important people in my life would be more resolved for me had I actually embraced the challenge of saving my blighted family. But the truth is I guiltily escaped into adulthood or at least my version of it. I went off to college where I took on a challenge that must have seemed more manageable to me at the time; namely, saving the world. Developing scurvy on a humanitarian mission in the Mexican Sierras, getting my head cracked open in a post Kent State student protest, and a psychotic break left me badly in need of saving myself.
I discovered some time ago that the mere proximity of other humans was experienced as a threat by me. Having been physically abused by both my parents and growing up in the violent world of male-dominated Brooklyn neighborhood, you would think that would have been obvious to me. But the apparent paradox is that throughout my life I have appeared extroverted, constantly seeking attention in ways that often precluded the approval I desperately needed.
The upshot of all this is that I experience other people as a threat but also myself as a threat. Slowly over the course of my life the threat of my own unruly mind has been attenuated through hard work in psychotherapy and writing.
So solitude is the occasion for me to imagine a benign other. One who accepts me and wants to hear whatever I have to say, who would never shame me for the fragile truths I fear would bring nothing but ridicule or worse. That person may very well exist but it’s enough that I am able to imagine them. A benevolent God seems to work for some people but so much bad has been done in God’s name, the whole concept of God has been sullied for me.
That sense of an embracing presence, an archetypal shoulder to lean on, a lap to receive my head weary with worry and relentless longing is more available to me in solitude than even with the people I know love me. Because even those who love me, and I am fortunate to have many who do, don’t know me in those places I can only reveal to myself. The sense of forgiveness I get from my imagined other for what is hidden in me and, as all things hidden, somehow shameful is slowly allowing me to feel more deeply acceptable, less stained by some unnameable existential sin.
In writing I can begin to allude to the struggle and thereby cut into my isolation over it. Writing, as a kind of intimate conversation with myself, both exposes the shame and attenuates it because at least this imagined other will not turn away. By some, for the moment, inexplicable alchemy this time of solitude enables me to reengage with the people I love with less fear and more generosity.