Solitude for the Mind

An article in The Atlantic found me just when I needed it this week. As I lingered in a moment where I longed for little but the opportunity to retreat into myself and build walls to barricade me from the rest of the world, where the over-stimulation of our modern age feels to be crushing upon my very soul, The Case for Solitude amalgamates an insightful compilation of reflections on solitude – it’s merits, it’s pitfalls, it’s creative potential.

From Thoreau to Emerson the article dissects what solitude means in our increasingly interconnected societies and begs the question: how do we strike a balance between engaging with the newly fabricated fabric of human connection and communication and giving ourselves space to turn inward and observe how our unique minds fit within the human experience?

The moment I found myself reached it’s breaking point two nights ago, when I fumbled over forum after forum for tech support to try to revive my Pioneer DDJ-SB2 controllers that Serato DJ no longer recognized. Sitting there, brain swimming with creative potential to blend sounds into sets and compilations to perform for the dancing masses of Afrikaburn next month, I was confined to a seemingly endless battle with technical difficulties, following a week where my iPod broke, my iTunes wouldn’t let me edit my music library in the way my O.C.D. needed to format it, and where planning for the coming desert adventure required me to drive home through a chaotic city after a long day of sitting in front of a computer, and once again sit in front of a computer screen and a phone screen to coordinate plans for my festival family. I reached my limit: I closed the computer, buried the decks in my closet, and shunned the opportunity to hold the woman I love in my arms to instead sit in my living room alone, with nothing by the flickering light of a candle and my ceaselessly swimming thoughts.

Over-stimulation. This is the word that has been hanging over my head of late, and the word that swirled around it as I sat in the rare silence that the nighttime can afford. I felt like I had no choice but to plug myself into this system of gadgets and devices in order to be a part of the modern world. At every turn in any given day, I find myself tangled in wires and cords and straining my eyes to focus on the artificial light one of several screens radiates in my direction. I feel this black mirror burning a hole in my pocket, weighing on me like Frodo’s ring bearing the weight of an ever-watchful eye, conjuring apocalyptic images from The Matrix of human beings being grown by machines, plugged into a Panopticon network whereby we can all be watched, preserved, harvested. Slavery to corporate influence and technological advancement has become the new global religion – we worship the dollar and the latest iteration of the iPhone on scales rivaled only by age-old adherence to the dogma of Abrahamic faiths. I look at our education systems valuing HTML coding over foreign languages, at books slowly becoming a thing of the past, at the tech industry convincing us that we need every piece of conflict-mineral ridden crap they churn out.

In an age of false, perpetually-obsolete idols, where does our humanity end and our imprisonment begin? And how long has the line been so blurred?

Most importantly, how do we disconnect, while remaining accountable to the social (and arguably moral) universal imperative to connect with one another, to exchange new ideas, to uncover new innovations, to work together to eradicate social injustice, to stand side-by-side in the face of tyranny and environmental degradation and global annihilation.

How do we unplug ourselves from the system without denying our basic human needs for belonging, for safety, for love? Do we intentionally cast ourselves aside like the Christopher McCandlesses and other hermits before us, wandering through what is left of the great unknown before our ultimate destinies find us frozen and alone? Or do we develop wholly new ways to coexist in a chaotic modern world that allow us to maintain our innate symbiotic relationship with the natural world around us?

I sat there wanting to walk away from it all, in the way that I always fantasize, living off the land and abandoning capitalist systems, fending for myself, ideally with one or more people that I truly love. At the end of the day, that connection is critical – when you live 10,000 miles from most of the people you care about most, modern technologies are invaluable, and can add to life rather than detract from it if used properly. Sometimes it just gets to be too much.

I eventually opted for connection. When I made it back to bed, I curled up safely next to the woman I love, the final moments of the glorious revival of Planet Earth flickering light over her sleepy face. There, as I closed my eyes, shutting out the glow of yet another technological gadget in front of me, the words of Sir David Attenborough gazing out at a cloudy London skyline guided me into my night’s sleep:

“Looking down on this great metropolis, the ingenuity with which we continue to reshape the surface of our planet is very striking. But it’s also sobering. It reminds me of just how easy it is for us to lose our connection with the natural world. Yet, it’s on this connection that the future of both humanity and the natural world will depend. And it is, surely, our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life on Earth.”

I counted myself lucky and recognized how grateful I was to be able to leave the city when I need to (not as much as I would like), and to have a lovely garden and yard space to stare out at and pretend I’m away from all the hustle of the modern world. These moments away from it all are critical for our minds to process our human experience without incessant distraction and needless noise.

But at this rate, where are we heading next? And what will be left of our minds when we get there?