Solitude & Silence
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
By Molly Murfee
Today I felt I was going to crawl out of my skin. So many people pulling on me. So many demands. So much attention to time. So little of it. Certainly not enough for just me.
Me to think. Me to allow my mind to wander aimlessly as if drunk on dragonflies and glimmering sunlight. Me to navigate the world at my own pace, steering by my psyche and my psyche alone.
I get this way sometimes. When all I want to do is run screaming out the door and down the closest dirt path without care of whether I have brought even a water bottle, or a rain jacket. Go all Chris McCandless and see if I can survive.
The world can just be. So. Much.
Sometimes I feel I have exorbitant space needs, an overwhelming requisite for solitude and silence. My wandering gene aches for freedom.
To my detriment, I am not a morning person. But lightning storms and hordes of other nature lovers don’t afford me the luxury to sleep in if I want to go deeper. Nauseatingly I get up at dawn. Hastily spoon the aromatic grounds into the burbling machine. Grab a muffin to go. Throw on the pack, still laden with the weekend’s empty bar wrappers and corners of sandwiches, a quarter-filled camelback – and flee.
It is always an anxious feeling – not knowing if I’ll get there in time. Not knowing if I’ll be stuck in a rural traffic jam of dust at 10 m.p.h. Hoping I’m ahead of the pack as I race to relax.
I get to the parking lot and there is one car. I cautiously peer behind me to make sure no one is sneaking up. Practically running, just in case I’m dreaming, I hit the trail full tilt.
There is, actually, no one. Not a soul save the black bear I imagine lumbering in the shadows of the early dawn, yawning, turning over logs looking for ants. The air takes on a magical quality of soft sunlight, blurring life’s edges with a romantic filter. I stop running. It is quiet. I hear only my own breath. Eventually, I cease furtively casting glances over my shoulder. When I arrive, still, there is no one. Resting my pack against the rock I settle in. And then, I just look. And listen.
I listen to the chipmunk scratch his ear, pick up my binoculars to spy on the hidden lake I know is across the valley. I watch the light move. Feel the chill of a wind that has just picked up fall’s crisp essence.
It is luxurious. I inhale deeply, try to stay focused on the nothingness and everything that lays before me. I fill up. Plump out. My shoulders drop away from my ears, the individual cells in my body open and ease.
The World Health Organization called noise pollution a “modern plague” in a 2011 report, writes Carolyn Gregoir of the Huffington Post. Car engines. Refrigerator motors. Televisions blabbing useless nonsense. Our world honks and beeps at us through a myriad of gadgets. When not already bombarded we plug in earbuds.
The constant barrage of noise increases our blood pressure, risk of heart attacks and stress levels. Our poor brain’s amygdala, the center of our caveperson survival instincts, goes on hyperdrive, releasing the stress hormone cortisol as if our lives were physically threatened. Our prefrontal lobe, the part involved in high order thinking, decision making and problem solving gets taxed from the “ceaseless attentional demands of modern life,” Carolyn writes, and we become drained, distracted and mentally fatigued.
The lack of solitude blocks our joy, our creativity, and our peace of mind. “It is a necessary tonic in today’s rapid-fire world,” Dr. Ester Bucholtz in Psychology Today advises. Our mad accessibility forces demands on our weekends, our post or pre work time - times that should be spent rejuvenating. She laments that “people today are caught in the struggle to produce work at a rate demanded by society that never considers our lack of alone time moments.”
Well, at least (I guess), it’s not just me.
Conversely when we are silent, our hippocampus brain cells – those responsible for learning, memory and emotion – literally rejuvenate.
Being alone, which is often silence’s beloved partner, gives us the power to regulate and adjust ourselves. We’re able to satisfy our own needs, restore our energy, take a rest. We’re able to unravel problems, make discoveries, find insights. Over and over again it is reported our creativity blossoms when allowed the space to be quiet and by ourselves.
Indeed, in medieval times when the term was coined, “alone” originally signified a completeness in one’s singular being.
I worry about a world where silence and solitude are considered unproductive, where we value overworking above mental and physical health, and where our own massive presence allows too little of either. I worry about a time when solitude is unavailable, we are so constantly surrounded by people. I worry when our ears are so persistently filled with the roar of the highway, the drone of fracking fields toiling away just outside our wild spaces.
What happens to our psyche, our creativity, our insightfulness when there are no more silent desolate places in which to rejuvenate our world-weary souls?