W.S. George
writer composer

The Art of Solitude

It turns out I have a few friends. There are some people who care enough about me not to see me condemn myself to a useless death. I'm not talking about my immediate family. They could count as friends, but for the purpose of this essay, I will not consider them.

My last two weeks have been a constant outpouring of mild care and encouragement flowing from people who hold the odd view that I'm better than I think I am. One friend (just this morning) startled me when she said she liked me and thought everyone “adores” me. The perceptions people cling to astound me at times but little would have prepared me for her words, just as she must have been thrown into confusion when I shared with her a few of my own demons.

These few people responded to a frantic call I made for help. They listened to my reaching out and availed themselves at a time when I expected no one to care one bit about what ever became of this scrawny chap. While commendable (and I thank them dearly for all the time they shared with me) I cannot help but think that this were a passing fancy: a desperate Bob needs help; Alice swoops down from her perch to save the drowning scoundrel then up, up and away she flies; the hero of the day. The chap is left on the banks of the river to dry himself and then take a bus home.

Soon I shall regain all my faculties and brush the dust from off my trousers. Soon I shall be able to walk the dark alleys again as I've always done. Sometimes I've been frightened by the shadows and called out for a guide. But that is all I get, a guide through a difficult season. It is the cycle of life.

I may sound ungrateful but, before you hound me, know that I cherish you dearly; much more than I cherish the faceless masses who ride the bus with me. Of course, in this heart there isn't much cherishing to go round. Let us be frank: life must go on. A real man must learn to lift his burden on his back and continue the journey. Were I not to do that, society will call me weak and mock me. Society is a wicked judge, and I cannot fall victim to her scorn again. I am too proud for that. Despite my weaknesses (now laid bare to many people whose only reaction was scorn and vile humour) I must carry on through pain and bad weather or die where I stand.

Loneliness has been my tireless demon. You may have read (if I bothered you with that personal reflection) On the Question of Happiness where I lamented my failed attempts at dancing on the floor with society and how my ill luck impacted so negatively on my happiness. Despite the situational (and recently constant) companions I have with me at this moment, all that I declared in that essay remains a fact. I am a lonely person valued more for what I can do than for who I am. This disease has so plagued me that I've developed some rather harmful coping habits in recent years.

The first, easiest to recognize is the want of attention. If you ever read Tolkien's Silmarillion, you will remember Ungoliant's thirst for light and beauty. She was an ugly spider, a demon spirit seduced by Melkor (the master of Sauron in the First Age, for those who do not know) who helped him destroy the divine trees Laurelin and Telperion. Those trees were a symbol of light and love and beauty that the Valar established in the world and Ungoliant's insatiable thirst for such led her to drink up all the sap and kill those trees that gave light to the world.

When Morgoth stole the jewels of Fëanor, Ungoliant ate every last one of them save the Silmarils themselves, which Morgoth kept for himself. The duet split up over these last jewels as the ugly spider did not have any restraint whatsoever in her; she was addicted to light, and needed it to ease her perennial hunger. Later, we learn that Ungoliant dwelt in a dreadful valley called Ered Gorgoroth where she consumed all light around her, and ate all her suitors and the vile children she spawned. Little escaped her but eventually she had nothing left to consume but herself. Driven mad by lack of food, Ungoliant ate herself to death.

As Ungoliant was to light, so am I to attention, acceptance and love. These are things I crave so dearly they have led me to the most demeaning circumstances. I will not feed you the often embarrassing details of such things. Those well acquainted with me will know, and that is enough.

While it may be common for every normal human being to want some attention and acceptance and love, I find that my need for it borders on the extreme. I know this because I panic very frequently when left alone. This leads me down an unproductive path of self mutilation, both mental and physical and the destruction of whatever feeble social ties I have already established.

I've found it difficult to come to terms with my tendency towards loneliness. Several times I ask myself if I'm not worthy of a simple “Hello, how are you feeling today?” from the people I hitherto called my friends. I think of it as magical the way other people are able to connect with others; it borders on the esoteric what mechanisms they use to inspire interest in themselves as human beings. Even as I type this, I cannot help but consider one disturbing fact: the only people who've ever shown any slight interest in me as another human being were those people who, for some reason thought it beneficial to break my quiet shell or those who have been called to attention because their conscience cannot let them neglect someone bent on self destruction.

Is that all there is to my life? Am I the victim who must always be rescued? Even heroes must retire someday.

Of the bad habits I've learned, the most debilitating (and public, and thus embarrassing) is the drama I work up when I panic. My most recent display led to a public soliloquy on Twitter lamenting my situation (which an acquaintance saw and so ruthlessly mocked a few days after), self injury that did not get the deserved attention from my dad (the scars are barely visible now, thank God) and a suicide threat that led to a small search party and very worried family and school faculty. But even in that stupid scenario, if we left out family (like I said I'm doing) and school authorities (they are paid to take care of us) I had no one who went out of their way to actually respond to me.

Besides my therapist who is also paid to talk to me etc, I actually have no one who'll freely give me their attention. I had no idea how expensive this thing was. I may only be thought about if I actually ended up dead. Then people will be sorry and move on eventually. Which leaves me back to where this all began: without attention.

Drama, I've learned, is a very destructive coping strategy in life. I started taking a course on the Science of Happiness (another symbol of how low I sank) and through that, I've learned of another ways to cope with loneliness: empathy. Instead of selfishly seeking acceptance in whatever meagre form people are kind enough to dish out sometimes, I should be open and love people more.

Loving humanity is a difficult thing, what with all the filth that is in this world. But caring for things and people has been proven by research to be a great way to satisfy that hunger I have. I've tried it in limited fashion: I ask people about themselves to feed my curiosity and drive that empathy engine forward. I think about them and their issues and am open to discussion. After all, as Heather Havrilesky put crassly, “you are not uniquely fucked”.

This morning an idea came to me. I've thought of this before but never under this dire circumstance. When I consider my life, one theme has stayed true: it is my proclivity to solitary exploits. From my earliest years it was easy to find me caught up in an Atlas studying the placements of countries, making up stories on maps or reading the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. I lived through children's encyclopedias, storybooks of the fairytale kind and music.

As I've grown, my richest associations with people have been founded on these: the common pursuit of knowledge usually associated with solitary endeavour, the appreciation and composition of music and poetry undisturbed and hours of reading. I've shunned this behaviour in recent years when I made it my aim to be more social. I remember one trade I made in my second term at Alliance Francaise in Accra after I topped my class with a remarkable score and made no friends the previous term. I traded stellar performance with friends and it proved quite the adventure. I didn't do as well but I was always surrounded by people who looked for me and looked up to me.

It was good while it lasted and proved that I could me more than the lone wolf at times. But I've always cherished that disposition I have to stand alone in the world. Despite all the loneliness that plagues me, something deep within calls it by a different name, and loves it.

I have decided to embrace my solitude.

There are two things I do well in life: keeping people away from me and pursuing the sublime and beautiful. My stellar performance at the former leaves me here, in hospital with my laptop and my thoughts for company. The second skill which I am still polishing is what has led me down this path: to build this website and to publish these personal essays.

Embracing solitude is not lip service to myself, nor is it an excuse for my crude social skills. It is accepting and loving what I am, a man not made for sunlight and warm smiles but for the gloom of a study, for the light of a fluorescent desk lamp illuminating a landscape of books and crumpled paper. It is coming to terms with what sliver of society hangs around me, and using it to my advantage and wellbeing.

The Buddhists are right when they say that all unhappiness is caused by desire, and stifling desire is the first step towards peace. My desire for society has led me here. It has led to my public disgrace online and offline, arguments and needless worry. My desire for that thing they call society has scarred me since high school, plagued me throughout my university years and it might have derailed my career this last month. I have other desires that have only led to improving myself: the desire to write better poetry, understand and write better music, to be a great software engineer... my solitary desires have had a more positive effect on my wellbeing. Embracing solitude means doing away with the cancerous desire for society and instead keeping to my heart the few who truly matter to me, while becoming better at what I love to do.

I almost feel happy typing this right now.

One thing has remained true in my life no matter the circumstances I face: I have always loved the things I create alone. They have become my friends, my children. I cannot, like Ungoliant, kill them because I want more light, more attention, more love. I am better than that.

The solitude that is my spirit was the defining armor of those characters who have captured my imagination the most and who live in my heart as models to look up to, from Phileas to Philip, from Darcy to Fëanor. These characters reflect something deeper and truer in me: where my happiness ultimately lies. Why should I leave that and chase after an ungrateful world? My preoccupation with love and acceptance is shameful, considering all the gems I can forge in my own secret fire. Mine are the jewels in the dark. Embracing my solitude means pursuing excellence in the things I love to do. It will be a tragedy if I died without achieving those things I have always cared for just because “people didn't think about me”.

The latest entry in my list of New Year resolutions is “consider solitude”, a call to cultivate this healthy habit of being just what I was meant to be. To love my aloneness and use it to my advantage. To enjoy the perks of being the misfit that I am.

The world is a minefield. I should be comfortable in my hole in the ground, writing my books, pouring over my maps, eating my bread and drinking my wine.

© 2017 William Saint George