The lone wise one, from the caves at Ajanta, India

I increasingly apply a sliding scale to assess most situations. It is one way of skirting the tendency in contemporary dialogue to Manichaean, black and white with nothing in between, either/or thinking. This is similar to how Asperger’s Syndrome is now being evaluated—you can have a little of it, or you can have a lot, and the range can be quite dramatic. This is very different from the old virginity test—you either are or you aren’t. Fewer and fewer things in life are that determinable.

A good example is solitude. I have written many times here about how solitude feeds, nourishes and enriches my artistic practice. For some of us it is a luxury to have the space and time to be alone. My time alone in the studio is life sustaining.

But the spectrum on solitude is broad. Even for some artists and writers, the time one must spend alone working is just too demanding.

From a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout, The Playwright’s Dilemma:

You’ve probably never thought about it before unless you happen to write for a living, but professional writers are doomed to spend most of their waking hours sitting by themselves at a desk, staring at a blank computer screen and waiting for lightning to strike. It’s a lonely business, which explains why a few authors choose to collaborate instead of flying solo. Moss Hart, who wrote his best plays in partnership with George S. Kaufman, explained his decision to write with a partner in “Act One,” his 1959 autobiography: “The hardest part of writing by far is the seeming exclusion from all humankind while work is under way, for the writer at work cannot be gregarious…. Collaboration cuts this loneliness in half. When one is at a low point of discouragement, the very presence in the room of another human being, even though he too may be sunk in the same state of gloom, very often gives that dash of valor to the spirit that allows confidence to return and work to resume.”

Then there is the span of issues that exist well beyond the domain of art making. At one end are the monks who engage in isolated retreats that can last for years, achieving a heightened mental state that can now be documented with neurofeedback. At the other end is the nightmare of forced solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals. Atul Gawande‘s Hellhole, published in the New Yorker a few years back, tracks the long history of research into isolation from Harry Harlow‘s infamous studies of monkeys denied their mothers to the profound damage suffered by inmates placed in supermaxes for prolonged periods. Gawande also outlines the loss of mental functioning that all humans experience when there is no human contact. “Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

As Paul Tillich said, “Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”

So what does this spectrum of solitude really mean about us and what is optimal for humans? Some culture critics have claimed that society has veered into a solitude-denying state of hyperconnectivity through the Facebook/Twitter/Google+/LinkedIn/texting portal and it is negatively affecting the way we think, interact and live. Too soon to tell? Who knows. But I don’t think the lesson here is just that old saw about a need for moderation. Seems to me there is much more to this story. Like so many things in our culture that can now be had in frightening excess quickly, too much or too little of solitude or sociality is an ongoing—and daily—balancing act.

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