Our Social Natures: More Thoughts on Solitude

Yesterday as I kicked off The Montaigne Project anew, I pledged to take it easier this time, perhaps writing just an essay a week. This morning, I feel compelled to go again. So be it. The greatest cure for writer’s block, if such a thing exists at all, is to promise yourself not to write on a certain day, to hold everything back. It’s never worked for me and never will. If I weren’t writing this essay now, I would feel compelled to email or text on WhatsApp. Better to put my thoughts to productive use.

That phrase “productive use” is interesting in this context, because most would consider reaching out to an individual and sharing thoughts and feelings a potentially productive use of time. The key word there is “potentially.” I am subject to great feasts and famines of outreach. I could go six months with an email inbox of nothing but sales pitches from companies, too lazy to unsubscribe from their spam. Then I get into a mood I have been for the past several months and I become horrified at my compulsion to share. Given that much of this sharing ends up being an extended conversation with myself, it might be best to cut out the middleman and save my dear friends from having to figure out the puzzle that my uncensored thoughts can become.

Believe it or not, this ramble is leading somewhere. But before I get there, I am noticing that whenever I dive into Montaigne, I find myself adopting his writing style almost immediately. A career working as a speechwriter and ghostwriter has made literary mimicry second nature to me. Slipping into Montaigne’s clothing is especially cozy for me. Montaigne gives me an opportunity to write about someone else but also myself in a completely natural manner.

Which brings me to the question of natural personalities.  The issue of solitude that I raised from Montaigne yesterday was one that stuck with him for years to come and he returned to it in several essays. My favorite is in Part III of his corpus, essay number three of that set, entitled “On Three Kinds of Social Intercourse.” Here’s how Montaigne further elaborated on his ideas about solitude:

Some natures are withdrawn, enclosed and private. The proper essence of my own form lies in imparting things and in putting them forth: I am all in evidence; all of me is exposed; I was born for company and loving relationships. The solitude which I advocate is, above all, nothing but the bridging of my emotions and thoughts back to myself, restricting and restraining not my wandering footsteps but my anxiety and my desires, abandoning disquiet about external things and fleeing like death from all slavery and obligation, and running away not so much from the throng of people as from the throng of affairs. To tell the truth, localized solitude makes me reach out and extend myself more: I throw myself into matters of State and into the whole universe more willingly when I am alone. In a crowd at the Louvre I hold back and withdraw into my skin; crowds drive me back into myself and my thoughts are never more full of folly, more licentious and private than in places dedicated to circumspection and formal prudence. It is not our folly which makes us laugh: it is our wisdom.

I adore where Montaigne writes about “running away not so much from the throng of people as from the throng of affairs.” When I think about the times that I dove into solitude and focused on the introverted parts of my nature, it was never to escape people, it was to escape a drama in which I wanted to play no role. How often do we end up embroiled in other people’s contrived passion plays? If we are lucky, these are one act trifles that annoy us for a short period but then pass. These passion plays, however, can last years — or just feel like it —  whether they are ongoing wars between parents or siblings, coworkers, or most bizarrely for me recently, between two therapists. I will spare my readers entry into my recent private hell by keeping those details out of this essay.

The second paragraph of the quote will ring true for many people these days. I have noticed on Facebook a loosening up from many people who held back from sharing their thoughts of the wider world. Perhaps taking a step back from the activities of their personal worlds and all of the photos to share about vacations, meals and children doing cute things in public has made them more attuned to the larger world we are inhabiting in this space and time. Maybe it is just people trying to make sense of times that are not only confounding, but seem likely to stretch out so long many of us wonder if we have the capacity to get through them. And these are the attitudes we may soon call healthy person problems. The images ahead of us promise to be so much darker. Are we prepared to handle them?

Which returns me to my own nature. Was I, like Montaigne, born for company and loving relationships, or do I follow Jean-Paul Sartre and believe that hell is other people? To be honest, I cannot claim to have such a fixed nature that I can give an easy answer. There are times when I take great joy in being with people and sharing experiences. Then there are times when I feel like I’m getting something less than what I want out of the experience. There are times when I feel partially excluded from the true experience of what’s happening, that I’m a one-off, semi-participant. There are times also that I purposefully become that one-off, semi-participant to protect my sense of self and not become fully enmeshed in the group. Finally, at the polar opposite, there are times when I feel so embarrassed, ashamed or merely exhausted that I pull away altogether.

I admire Montaigne’s security, his ability to join easily and then pull back when he finds it necessary to refocus within. Much of what he writes here is about ancient stoic philosophy and the essays are, if nothing else, an updating of Stoicism to 16th Century France. I would like to reach Montaigne’s easy going acceptance of the social world so that my pullbacks can be as intentional as his.  Maybe someday … the writing and the work continues.

Today’s extra: An all too apt song about our world at this moment, with a hat tip to all the Fallout fans out there. The End of the World