I had as lief have been myself alone

Being alone is not easy for many of us -perhaps because it allows an inner dialogue to emerge that is ordinarily submerged in the noise of the crowd. And yet it is in solitude that a still small voice emerges: the one that allows us to assess our actions, and to argue with ourselves.

This, of course, was a central theme of the Jewish-German thinker Hannah Arendt who fled Nazi Germany to America. I suppose she came to public attention largely because in 1961, The New Yorker commissioned Arendt to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS officer who helped to orchestrate the Holocaust.

I happened upon an essay on solitude by Jennifer Stitt, then studying at University of Wisconsin-Madison who was obviously impressed by Arendt’s work: https://aeon.co/ideas/before-you-can-be-with-others-first-learn-to-be-alone

Arendt believed that ‘solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd – to finally hear herself think… Arendt was surprised by Eichmann’s lack of imagination, his consummate conventionality. She argued that while Eichmann’s actions were evil, Eichmann himself – the person – ‘was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous. There was no sign in him of firm ideological convictions.’ She attributed his immorality – his capacity, even his eagerness, to commit crimes – to his ‘thoughtlessness’. It was his inability to stop and think that permitted Eichmann to participate in mass murder… A person who does not know that silent intercourse (in which we examine what we say and what we do) will not mind contradicting himself, and this means he will never be either able or willing to account for what he says or does; nor will he mind committing any crime, since he can count on its being forgotten the next moment.’ The banality of evil.

I also discussed this in an essay I wrote last year in relation to extremism and loneliness: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2019/03/27/society-is-no-comfort-to-one-not-sociable/

But here I’m not so concerned with the aberrant aspects of enforced solitude -during a quarantine, say- because being lonely and being alone are separate creatures. Most of us are never really alone -that’s when we meet our inner selves. It’s when there is no one else inside, that we feel lonely. ‘Eichmann had shunned Socratic self-reflection. He had failed to return home to himself, to a state of solitude. He had discarded the vita contemplativa, and thus he had failed to embark upon the essential question-and-answering process that would have allowed him to examine the meaning of things, to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood, good and evil.’ This suggested to Arendt ‘that society could function freely and democratically only if it were made up of individuals engaged in the thinking activity – an activity that required solitude. Arendt believed that ‘living together with others begins with living together with oneself’… Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business; solitude is that human situation in which I keep myself company. Loneliness comes about … when I am one and without company’ but desire it and cannot find it.’

‘Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.’

Millenia ago, when I was a child in Winnipeg, I remember having to stay away from school and in our house for a week or two because, in those pre-vaccine days, I had the measles. I would stare through the bedroom window at my friends playing in the field outside in the snow and tell my mother how bored I was. After reading every book I could find, and tiring of the adult radio programs she was fond of listening to while she cooked, I would wander into the kitchen and complain that there was nothing to do. She would listen patiently for a while, and then shoo me out of the room.

I still remember the day at breakfast that I announced that I had decided I was going to go out and play with my friends. It was Saturday and everybody was throwing snowballs at each other -I could even see them through the frosty kitchen window. I tried to look determined and crossed my arms over my chest like I’d seen my father do when he was intent on something.

“It’s only been 5 days, G,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re still contagious.”

I shrugged at the argument. “They’ve all had measles, mother… And besides, I’ll be so wrapped up none of my measles could get at them.”

She smiled at me -it was one of those fake smiles she usually put on when she was trying to hide her frustration. “How do you know they’ve all had it, G?” Her face softened when she could see I no longer had my arms crossed over my chest. “What do you think would happen then?”

I thought about it for a moment. The teacher had warned us that measles could be dangerous to some children. She’d never actually told us what that meant, but at recess Jamie told me that his uncle had got a bad case when he was young and something had happened to his head –‘gitis’, or something. He was never the same after it, apparently, but he didn’t explain.

“What could happen, G…?” I was taking too long to answer her question, I suppose.

I remember shrugging and looking first at the window, and then at the floor. “Gitis,” I mumbled guiltily, not confident I had pronounced it correctly. Anyway, I should have thought of that, and prepared a suitable rebuttal.

It had an unexpected result at any rate: she bent down and hugged me. “That’s right, sweetie,” she said after kissing the top of my head. “I knew you understood why I need to keep you home. You just had to think about it, that’s all…”

I now realize that Arendt was on to something. There really is a voice somewhere inside if we stop to listen to it. Mine sounds suspiciously like my mother’s, though…

An accident of birth

For years now, I have picked through the garden of my life -sometimes for pleasure, and sometimes for utility. I weed, of course -the privilege of growing in my aging plot is largely contingent on my having planted it in the first place. Contingent on the purpose for which it was intended. Things that arrive unannounced might be tolerated at times, but the recent discovery of a flower tucked in amongst the lettuce plants instead of growing where I’d planted others of its kind, spoke more of my neglect than serendipity.

And now that I’ve been retired long enough to ponder these things, it occurred to me that the peripatetic guest may not have the same value in its new home. It’s still a flower to be sure -it’s still beautiful, and still proffers its petals as seductively to passing bees- but is it really the same flower as one that was the product of my labour? Does the intent flavour the result?

For some, I suspect it’s a trivial question: surely a daisy, say, is a daisy, no matter whether it arrived accidentally or was planted in the spot. It is a gift, they might say -something for which gratitude not deliberation is appropriate. In a sense, of course, they are correct. And yet, is all the work I may have expended -choosing its pedigree and colour,  calculating a location that might offer it the best chance to thrive, and then watering and weeding- do these not affect the appreciation of the resulting flower? And was appreciation not a large part of the original incentive that led to its planting?

For that matter, does a gift share an equal merit as the same item obtained through work and planning? Does it even possess the same meaning?

It occurred to me that maybe I simply have too much time on my hands now that I’m retired, and I tried to shelve the thought along with all those books I have been meaning to read once the opportunity presented itself. But the question continued to poke annoyingly at my brain in the evenings whenever my eyes tired of reading. I just could not understand what it was about the problem that was continuing to disturb me; and more, was I the only one who even thought there might be something to it?

I can’t say I actively sought an answer -quite frankly, I couldn’t even think of a way to phrase the question- but I did stumble upon a short philosophical enquiry written by Jonny Robinson, a tutor and ‘casual lecturer’ in the department of philosophy at Macquarie University in Australia: https://aeon.co/ideas/would-you-rather-have-a-fish-or-know-how-to-fish

It touched on a theme that seemed eerily similar: how there may be a difference in the quality of the knowledge of Truth, depending upon how it was acquired. ‘Many are born into severe poverty with a slim chance at a good education, and others grow up in religious or social communities that prohibit certain lines of enquiry. Others still face restrictions because of language, transport, money, sickness, technology, bad luck and so on. The truth, for various reasons, is much harder to access at these times. At the opposite end of the scale, some are effectively handed the truth about some matter as if it were a mint on their pillow, pleasantly materialising and not a big deal. Pride in this mere knowledge of the truth ignores the way in which some people come to possess it without any care or effort, and the way that others strive relentlessly against the odds for it and still miss out.’

Each type is in possession of the same Truth, presumably, although in one case it is a gift and in the other, has required an effort to obtain it. It seems to me there is a difference, though: ‘the person ready to correct herself, courageous in her pursuit of the truth, open-minded in her deliberation, and driven by a deep curiosity has a better relationship to truth even where she occasionally fails to obtain it than does the indifferent person who is occasionally handed the truth on a silver platter.’

So, to my question about the itinerant daisy: does it possess the same intrinsic worth as one that has been purposely planted and nourished? Robinson, for his essay, puts the question slightly differently: ‘Is it better to know, or to seek to know?’ Both seem labyrinthine, and unanswerable -trivial, perhaps- largely because they are both perspectival.

So he rephrases the question in the form of a thought-experiment: ‘Would you rather have a fish or know how to fish?’ If having a fish is the result of knowing how to catch it, that is different from having to wait for someone who knows how to fish, and hoping she will actually give the one she caught to you.

Robinson feels it is the same with knowledge. An isolated fact (knowledge) may be valuable, but if you have learned how to acquire more knowledge, you are not limited to that one fact. It is, in fact, a type of synergism: knowledge plus the ability to add to it turns out to be better than the mere fact of knowledge on its own.

That accidental daisy growing by itself amongst the lettuce is still beautiful, but if it truly was an accident, that may or may not be the end of the line for it -especially if I don’t know how to care for it. It is, in that case, on its own. In fact, given its location, I may even think of it as an undesirable -a weed- and pull it out.

It does seem to suggest that it has a different value, a different essence, from a bed of cherished Gerbera Daisies planted and growing contentedly, in their assigned place. In a sense, it is no longer a flower -or, at any rate, not one that I treasure.

One question, though, inevitably leads to another: what is growing alongside the lettuce then…?