that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Being alone can never be enough

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“All men’s miseries,” Pascal says, “derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Now as it happens, I have spent quite a lot of time alone during my life, usually by choice. I like being alone, always have.

But being alone and sitting alone in a quiet room are not the same thing. I certainly spend enough time on my posterior in front of a computer, and before that in front of a typewriter, and before that with pen and paper.

But I have always punctuated that by getting up from time to time and walking around or lying down.

As a matter of fact, I have never been sure about that business of sitting in a chair. It’s easy to see how our miseries could derive from that alone.

Chairs can be wonderful, but my preferred item of furniture has to be the bed. I can spend the day all alone propped up in bed — or on a sofa. If you’re reading, you can pause, lean back a bit, and think over what you’ve read. You can put the book down and make a note.

Or you can stop reading altogether and start sketching in your head something you may want to write about. If words and ideas and images really coalesce, then you get up and write them down — after sitting down by yourself in a quiet room.

My feeling comfortable alone seems to be a fundamental characteristic of mine. When I was a child I never minded having to play by myself, and in my teens I spent many a day hiking by myself through Pennypack Park (which was a lot wilder then than now).

So what was Pascal getting at? Just antsiness?

I don’t think so. It’s one thing to be by yourself doing something, quite another to be by yourself, period. I think the image one needs to conjure to envision what Pascal was getting at is being by yourself in a room empty of all but one chair in the middle, white-washed walls, tile floor, a room like the one Dante was said to sit in while composing verse, where he would stare at one of the walls, listening for the music of the words as sound and sense interpenetrated one another.

Of course, there are other, less edifying ways to picture it. It could be an interrogation room and one is sitting there preparing one’s defense.

Probably the best image is that of a monk in his cell, “sitting quietly, doing nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Basho.

But being alone can never be enough … by itself. It has to alternate with action, movement. You have to get up and do something — sweep the floor, or draw water, listen to the catbird sing, notice the splash of the frog jumping into the pond.

Such is the alternating current of being. And so, from time to time — when we are, as it were, suspended between the idea and the act — we may just find ourselves catching a glimpse of what it is behind it all.

 

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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4 Responses to “Being alone can never be enough”

  1. I’ve been listening to Haley Reinhart’s new single called Free. For me, the lyrics represent the tension between between being in love, and being free from potentially miserable entanglement. Free, a beautiful way to be, sure, but in the song are the lines, “It’s not like she isn’t loving you/It’s just that you can’t be alone for too long.” And this comes across like the singer is forgiving the lover she is leaving for being unfaithful. He cannot be alone.

    This leads back to Genesis 2:18, a haunting passage for a man such as myself, a salesman, who spends a lot of off time alone, “And the Lord God said: It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself.” I purposely chose the Douay-Rheims version for the pronoun “us”. I wonder if that’s like the queen’s “we”. But there is God in the process of creation, and he is alone. Or, does the “us” include the man as active in the creation process? We all know that it is a rare quality poem written by more than one person, same with paintings. The great ones are all done by great ones, not great couples or teams.

    What I have been getting at though, is that I work out. Part of this is to racewalk. On my short walk days, because of time, but sometimes weather, I do 2.6 miles. Today, will be the 6.0-mile walk with the steep hills. My most common walk is the 5.6-miles I do through the city, and because I go down to the river and across, I get some hills as well. The ciy walk is most enjoyable, and I have done that in under an hour. My next milestone is to get under a 10-minute mile.

    Part of the endurance of the racewalking, is to be alone. Something, usually, I am more than fine with it. Yet, there are times when I go out, and just during the first mile, I have these little pains and moments of feeling too exhausted or winded, or what-have-you, moments that in former times could have been cues to stop the walk, and “face up” to the “fact” that I am too out of shape to even do a mile, or walk as fast as I am “trying” to. Upon reflection, however, what’s really taking place is that I am facing being alone for the next hours, with my own thoughts and self. Sabotage! by who can be my own worst enemy.

    That’s what Pascal’s quote drills down to for me, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Haley Reinhart’s song has another line, “Nobody wins from this misery,” which is the misery of being in a relationship not of “true love”. At the end of the music video, she breaks up with the guy, and has that look of doubt, like she really loves the guy and now has to go it alone. Is there more misery in the relationship, or for her now having to be alone with herself? To me, it is now good to be “free”, even though I struggled with it in my divorces.

    Back to the tension in my life created with the Genesis verse, “It is not good for a man to be alone” (so get yourself a woman). The freedom in the song has to do with being able to be alone, whether that’s sitting in a still room for a length of time, or racewalking through the city.

  2. Rus, your comment is a perfect counterpart to my column. You know, in the way a Japanese poet would answer the haiku of another’s? Thank you.

  3. Frank, not to bring this down from the elegance of you column and Rus’ comments, but I couldn’t help thinking of this news article from The Onion:

    Sweating, Shaking Man Never Going to Spend A Little Time With His Thoughts Again

    March 9, 2012 | ISSUE 48•10

    LOS ALAMOS, NM—Describing it as a harrowing ordeal that he “wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy,” badly shaken 39-year-old senior account manager Daniel Tillison told reporters Friday he would never again spend a few minutes alone with his thoughts. “My God, it was just awful—that’s the last time I ever take a moment to myself to reflect,” a profusely sweating Tillison said before unsteadily pouring a large glass of whiskey and drinking it down in a single gulp. “The worst part is, I actually did this to myself. I actually said, ‘I think I’d like a little time alone to think about some things.’ Then, for a few brief, horrible moments, I looked deep within myself and saw who I really was. It was honestly the scariest, most nauseating experience of my life.” Tillison said that if he ever again found himself alone and without the distractions of music, the Internet, television, or video games, he would repeatedly hit himself in the head with the handiest large blunt object to prevent any sort of return to his own innermost thoughts.

  4. Leave it to The Onion to explain what Pascal was getting at. I am abashed. That is funny, and maybe truer than we know.

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