Solitude

Solitude is an island. Quite literally: Way up North, deep in the Arctic Ocean, there’s a small archipelago called “Einsamkeit”, German for solitude. It’s barren and icy, temperatures rarely go above freezing and needless to say, it is completely uninhabited.

We like knowing that this place exists, not only because of its unusual name but because it’s such an excellent metaphor: Solitude is also island inside of us, a place we might like to visit – but not one where we’d like to linger.

Popular stories about solitude often begin on islands, place where the likes of Robinson Crusoe fight for bare survival. It’s a narrative playing to the popular notion that solitude is bad, something so undesirable that it amounts to a struggle for life. And yet: Each and everyone of us needs occasional breaks from other people, time spent alone, time spent in solitude.

It’s a state for reflection, a state for growth, for working on yourself. And although we tend to conflate it with loneliness, the two are very different: Solitude may lead to loneliness, but it doesn’t have to. Or, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it: “If you are lonely when you are alone, you are in bad company.”

Solitude, then, is a double-edged sword: Oppressive if forced upon you, liberating if chosen. Which goes to show that despite of being universal, it is an experience that couldn’t be more individual.

Those are the kinds of dichotomies we are exploring on The Idea List this month. For it, we’ll go to the big cities and to space, roam rural Spain and Russian forests. We’ll go to the fortresses of solitude.