39 Creating Space: On Solitude

“It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness. We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs. You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself.”

Solitude. On a day like today, it seems like an impossible dream. Three little kids with huge personalities and an overwhelming desire to dominate my time: that’s what a weekend is for me. My wife and I are resigned to divide spare moments for ourselves — time we use for catch-up naps or abbreviated workout sessions. But it leaves precious little time for each other.

Montaigne offers up a beautiful philosophical oasis in this essay:

“We should have wives, children, property and, above all, good health… if we can: but we should not become so attached to them that our happiness depends on them. We should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop, keeping it entirely free and establishing there our true liberty, our principal solitude and asylum. Within it our normal conversation should be of ourselves, with ourselves, so privy that no commerce or communication with the outside world should find a place there; there we should talk and laugh as though we had no wife, no children, no possessions, no followers, no menservants, so that when the occasion arises that we must lose them it should not be a new experience to do without them.”

There’s a class imperative that must be met before you can live like Montaigne: own property, and enough of it to create your own room. Then, afford to be idle, or at least not so busy so that you have time for that room behind the shop. Finally, accept detachment from your loved ones. In modern America, this too is a class statement, because only someone with the means to have nannies, maids and manservants can excuse his or herself from the massive responsibilities of life. Montaigne is not blind to this fact, and points out that a home life can consist of just as much toil as a work life:

“There is hardly less torment in running a family than in running a whole country. Whenever our soul finds something to do she is there in her entirety: domestic tasks may be less important but they are no less importunate.”

Part of that responsibility today is the work life. Increasingly in life, it seems like a treadmill … as pay rises to meet responsibilities, so too do expectations. Talent that allows you to rise to a level becomes insufficient to impress those who judge your work. As a result, there’s less appreciation for the work done and greater frustration at the lack of challenges.

Without that room of my own … forced to work in a cube five days a week to feed by family … I’ve found a metaphysical room in writing.  It can consume my thoughts through the most deadening drudgery or while cleaning yet another dirty diaper. Montaigne, in this most philosophical of all of his essays, calls on his readers to find a physical place, but he also understands that the locale is not enough:

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession.”

I feel some satisfaction in my ability to withdraw from the mob. And the fact that I have been able to make that room behind the shop exist in a coffee shop, on a stationary bike or even on an “L” train to write feels satisfying as well.

But there’s one aspect of writing that keep troubling me. Even though I have had an interesting career to date, I’m hardly in position to withdraw from it. Psychologically, I need to follow Montaigne’s path. But is it, over the long run, a path I can keep up without it’s own rewards? Montaigne talks about the ideal circumstance to enter into his kind of withdrawal:

“It seems to me that solitude is more reasonable and right for those who, following the example of Thales, have devoted to the world their more active, vigorous years…. We have lived quite enough for others: let us live at least this tail-end of life for ourselves. Let us bring our thoughts and reflections back to ourselves and to our own well-being.”

I cannot for the tail-end of my life to continue this journey. I’m on this mission not because I expect it to lead anywhere, but simply because I must. In my weakest moments, I daydream that others will start to witness my wanderings and eventually, people will pay to read my thoughts. Montaigne argues forcefully against such delusions:

“It is a vile ambition in one’s retreat to want to extract glory from one’s idleness. We must do like the beasts and scuff out our tracks at the entrance to our lairs. You should no longer be concerned with what the world says of you but with what you say to yourself.’”

I wish I could end on a happier note that this, but I’m certain that Montaigne is right. It does not matter what comes of this journey, only that I’m compelled to take it and am determined to see it through to the end. The daily satisfaction that I take from completing each essay means a great deal to me. That’s reward enough, for now.

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