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…

Society is no comfort to one not sociable

The curse of modern society may be our need to discover patterns. Our need to explain everything could be an honest atavism, but the reasons we find may be way off the mark. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, is a common fallback position that is often useful when the gun is not smoking -or when there’s no gun.

I suppose societies have always faced threats, though. And whether from without or within, they have always looked for remediable causes; the death of a society means the termination of shared customs at the very least, and shared loyalties just as probably -the sense of an us pitted against an implacable them who do not understand us.

Just as frightening, however, is an adversary who does not share our basic humanity. In an interesting article written by Nabeelah Jaffer, who is a former associate editor at Aeon, https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism  she discusses ‘the inner dialogue’ which the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes about in The Origins of Totalitarianism. ‘We speak in two voices.’ Jaffer says of Arendt’s ideas. ‘It is this internal dialogue that allows us to achieve independent and creative thought – to weigh strong competing imperatives against each other.  You engage in it every time you grapple with a moral dilemma. Every clash of interests, every instance of human difference evokes it. True thought, for Arendt, involved the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. True loneliness, therefore, was the opposite. It involved the abrupt halting of this internal dialogue: ‘the loss of one’s own self’ – or rather, the loss of trust in oneself as the partner of one’s thoughts. True loneliness means being cut off from a sense of human commonality and therefore conscience.’

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’, as Arendt says. ‘It was loneliness, Arendt argued, that helped Eichmann and countless others … to give themselves over to totalitarian ideologies and charismatic strongmen. These totalitarian ideologies are designed to appeal to those who struggle with the internal moral dialogue that Arendt valued as the highest form of thought … Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant.’ So is the inner dialogue.

This got me wondering about what I see when I wander the streets of my city, and what I read and hear as people attempt to explain seemingly senseless crimes -especially violent ones- and attribute motive, usually in retrospect, to so-called ‘loners’. Not to loneliness, you understand, but to loners, an ostensibly different, more malignant, and ‘I should have guessed’ variety of human who does things of which you and I could barely conceive. But, I don’t know that the average person understands the difference between ‘loneliness’ and ‘loner’ -or even thinks it might be important.

As sometimes happens, I emptied the change in my pocket into a hat lying on the sidewalk in front of a young man. He was sitting quietly, eyes closed, in torn jeans and a dirty grey sweatshirt on a busy corner with his dog. The roughly printed sign by the hat merely said ‘We Are Hungry! Will You Help?’

He must have sensed someone stopping in front of him because he opened his eyes and smiled as I put the change in his hat. I was about to walk away when it occurred to me to ask about the ‘We’ in the sign. I don’t know why it mattered, to tell the truth; I suppose I was just trying to be friendly.

“Where’s the ‘We’?” I asked, trying not to sound too nosey.

His smile grew as he pointed to the sleeping dog at his side. I think I blushed at the naïveté of my question, but he didn’t seem at all surprised. “When the sign just said ‘I’m Hungry’ most people only walked by and pretended they didn’t see either me or Jason. I was only another runaway kid trying to get money for drugs, or something…” He shrugged resignedly, as if this was just life on the streets. “But they had no idea what it’s like -and even worse, they didn’t care.”

He reached over and patted the dog -a black lab, I think- and received a couple of tail wags for his effort. “I thought maybe letting them know I had a dog to feed might help…”

He wasn’t a menacing-looking boy -his auburn hair looked clean and combed, and although his face was definitely in need of a little soap, his expression was friendly and, well, innocent.

“And did changing the sign help?”

He seemed to think about it for a while, then nodded, and his eyes sought mine for a moment. “Well, you stopped to talk to me…”

That caught me by surprise. “Doesn’t anybody usually talk to you?” I felt foolish saying it, but the words tumbled out before I had time to think about them.

The expression on his face answered for him: ‘Are you kidding?’ it said. But I could tell he felt he should explain it to me. “I’m a beggar on the street -an eyesore for most people- so I spend my days in silence, just trying not to look frustrated. Trying not to annoy…”

He studied my face for a minute, obviously wondering whether or not it was worthwhile discussing it any further. Whether I would listen. “But I have Jason,” -he patted the dog again- “And he has me, so neither of us is lonely.”

For a moment, I felt I had entered his world. “And what about at night? Do you stay with friends, or…”

He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s just Jason and me. I’ve really never needed much more.”

I could tell by his face that he felt I was discouraging others from contributing to his hat, so I smiled and wished him good luck. But as I turned to walk away he looked up at me again, his eyes fluttered around me like little sparrows looking for a branch, and wondering if they should perch. “Loners are humans, too,” he said, and his face lit up with the joy of an inner dialogue he simply could not disguise. “Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, mister,” he added, just before he closed his eyes again to wait in daylong silence. But I was left with the impression that our words, as much as my money, were important in his world. And I couldn’t help wondering what those who never stopped to talk would think of him.

For that matter, I wonder what Arendt would have thought.