Bohemian Buddhist Review

Going It Alone, by Fenton Johnson

The above-titled essay is Harper's feature article for this April. The sub-title is "the dignity and challenge of solitude."

I thought this a worthy piece for discussion on BoBu since so many of us who are engaged in spiritual practice face this issue practically every day.

Even though you can download Johnson's NPR Fresh Air interview, the Harper's print piece is so thoughtful and beautifully-written it's worth the price of the magazine in my view; it's a topic rarely addressed in the MSM.

With good reason.

As "solitaries," as Johnson calls us, himself included (and which may or may not apply to meditators), we sometimes face societal disapproval and misunderstanding. The fact that we resist the contemporary "ideals" of heated coupledom, consumerism, and constant activity touted as the road to happiness by our conspicuously crazed culture makes us strangers in a strange land.

For example, the more the outside world insists I do things and/or dangles enticing new distractions in front of me, the more I'm inclined to ignore them and go further inside, while I still can. Some would call this isolating. I call it soul-saving sanity.

Johnson is particularly astute on the single vs. coupled issue. As a gay man who lost his partner to AIDS twenty years ago, he's spent much of the intervening years deeply examining his need for solitude. Apparently about 25% of Americans live singly -- a figure he says is growing -- so he's not alone; whether this is by choice or default is unknown. (What are your thoughts that just came up with reading these stats? Pity for the singles? Compassion for the couples? Both or neither?)

What I liked most about the article -- apart from the validation it gives those of us who are similarly inclined towards solitude -- was Johnson's appreciation and admiration for other writers who had taken the solitary path and embraced rather than bemoaned it. Writers like Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, and Eudora Welty.

Johnson's highly unusual childhood in Kentucky, near Gethsemani Abbey, included the family's friendship with Trappist monks, notably Thomas Merton. This leads Johnson to a profound discussion of celibacy you won't find anywhere else; it's a subject I've been thinking about myself as I get older. Do I really want to put emphasis on the sexual side of things anymore? More importantly, do I really have the requisite desire, time and energy to engage with a full-time partner?

My chosen destiny, not necessarily my fate, is to be a solitary. It's a state that tends to come with a writer's trade and tendencies, not to mention a meditator's. Though it doesn't mean, as Johnson emphasizes, that we don't love frequent good company, or that things can't change in different periods of our lives. But there's also something about the state of the world that is asking for as much thoughtfulness as we can give; I just don't find that very easy in a crowd.

Merton says it much better, writing that solitaries are "a mute witness, a secret and even invisible expression of love which takes the form of [our] own option for solitude in preference to the acceptance of social fictions."

What are those fictions? That we can have it all, an active career/family life and a lot of time alone, or even that being with a partner is better than being single. For some, perhaps. But for solitaries, going it alone can be just as, if not more, fulfilling.