This week, our teenage son returns to school, that great laboratory for learning how to work and play well with others.
But where are the places to learn how to work and play well alone — to thrive, if only for a day or even an afternoon, with no other company but yourself?
That’s the question writer Fenton Johnson recently explored in a cover story for Harper’s magazine, “Going it alone: The dignity and challenge of solitude.”
Intrigued by Johnson’s premise, I got a copy of his article when it was published in April, setting it aside for the time when I’d have a quiet hour to read his 10-page story and reflect on it.
Days passed, then weeks, then months. Work, parenthood and marriage, all good things, leave few quiet hours in a year for much of anything else.
That’s precisely the point of Johnson’s essay, which I finally got around to reading last weekend, when a road trip to collect our son from boarding camp left me with time off the clock in a motel room. Johnson wonders whether a world so defined by busyness and the ideal of teamwork gives us the solitude required to understand our real purpose.
He understands that this dilemma is nothing new. In fact, Johnson begins his essay with the famous quote from 17th-century French thinker Blaise Pascal: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
To that I would add a more recent observation from author Clifton Fadiman, who wisely noted, back in the 1950s, that America was built by people who knew how good it was to occasionally be by yourself. Early in the nation’s history, said Fadiman, “we Americans produced a pair of privacy-loving types: the gentleman and the frontiersman … The gentleman and the frontiersman did much to create this country. Gentlemen, for example, wrote the Declaration of Independence. Frontiersmen put it to work.”
But Johnson suggests that in an age of ever-present connectedness, we’ve lost the skill of being successfully alone. “Go to any bookstore, and you’ll find shelves of books written about living in a relationship … Then try looking for lessons in solitude. You will search for a long while, even though more and more of us are living alone, whether by choice or circumstance.”
Johnson doesn’t offer many suggestions for mastering the art of solitude, although he does imply that, like anything else, it gets easier if we take time to practice it. I was nearly finished with Johnson’s article when a motel clerk, as part of a corporate courtesy offensive, rang my room to make sure I was comfortable.
I’d gone 40 minutes without an interrupted thought. These days, that’s probably a record.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.