On the Importance of Being Silent

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I’ve had visions these past few years, yearnings more like it, of leaving my life behind, moving to some deserted island, living off the land. I’d take my husband and kids with me for sure, but that’s about it. The older I get, the more I realize how irrelevant stuff is, how irrelevant most of my jobs have been to the grand scheme of my life, and how much I could be better served by a life of quiet solitude. Often, I just want to escape.

I imagine that it is a special kind of person who can succeed in doing so.

I’ve heard about people who were on their way home from dinner out one night, got the idea in their mind to go to Mexico, and rather than continue home aimed their car toward the border. I’ve always admired that. I’ve felt that it requires a certain amount of courage to do so. Courage I’m not certain I possess.

Once, on vacation in Puerto Plata, I met a man who taught scuba lessons to tourists at the resort. He was originally from Australia. He went to the Dominican Republic on vacation, as I had, fell in love with the Spanish culture and the rural life, and decided to stay. He wasn’t a local, but he became one over time. I admired his spirit, his decision to do something drastic with his life, and his follow through.

Courage. Follow through. And the simplicity of it all.

In my twenties I took myself on a graduation trip out west. I flew to Calgary, rented a car and drove as far as Tofino and back. I did a lot on that trip—I hiked the Rockies, I ziplined Whistler mountain, I slept on the beach under sunsets, I skydived over a Washington panorama, I partook in High Tea… But most of that trip had been planned in advance, and with a fair amount of apprehension at that. Not much had been left to spontaneity.

A few years later, at a turning point in my life, I made the decision to pack up and leave home for good. I moved to Montreal. I barely knew anyone there, not even the predominant language. I had to learn the language, learn the city, learn the culture. I needed to find work and needed to make friends. Everything was new.

You could say with either of these experiences that I was being adventurous, whimsical. And I was in many ways. Yet, still, I lacked follow through. Still, I lacked courage too.

Because with each of these experiences I also became lonely, disengaged in an undesirable way. I came to yearn for the company of loved ones, rather than allowing myself to succumb to the loneliness and grow from it. I didn’t allow myself to go to the other side, so deep inside myself that the company of others could become unnecessary. No, I wanted love, attention. I wanted to feel the presence of people.

As an introvert this is actually a tricky thing. I am not a people person, in my life there is such a thing as people overload. In a crowd I look for the exit, at a party I will search for escape. Yet, in the times in my life when I had most opportunity to introvert myself, it’s people I sought. I almost feel ashamed to admit it.

Recently, I read the book The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel, the story of Christopher Knight, a man who lived alone in the woods for 27 years. Restless in his twenties, he left his job, his apartment, and just got in his car and drove. He drove and drove, down the eastern US coast, and then back up, until one day driving into the woods as far as he could possibly go, at which point he got out and walked. Eventually he found a “suitable” space to settle down, and that’s where he remained until being discovered some 27 years later. In all that time the only word uttered to another human soul was, Hi.

I think about that compared to my own experiences. I am an introvert, yet I am also an open book. I share. I have a compulsion to share. What would I do without the ability to share? Would I turn insane?

There’s a quote from the book that reads:

Isolation is the raw material of greatness; being alone is hazardous to our health. Few other conditions produce such diametrically opposing reactions, though of course genius and craziness often share a fence line. Sometimes even voluntary solitude can send a person over to the wrong side of the fence.

Thinking back to my trip out west, I moved to the wrong side of the fence.

It began with a sense of adventure. I felt free, liberated. I also felt apprehension at the unfamiliar surroundings. Each day spent in a city felt strange, I only felt at home in nature. I kept leaving Calgary for Banff, preferring the rugged outdoors to navigating a new city. By hiking amongst the rocks, lakes and trees I felt peaceful and free. In those moments I neither needed nor wanted for anyone.

But that trip was spent moving from place to place. I stayed in hostels, witnessed other travelers who were moving in groups of two or three. They had people to eat with, cook with, walk with. Everywhere I went, I was alone. Restaurants, alone. Movies, alone. Every walk, every car ride, every new sighting or adventure was passed alone. For friendship I had my books and journal, they kept me company, spoke to me, gave me space to share and communicate. But it was all in my head, I was constantly in my head.

By the time I reached Whistler I began to feel the first pangs of loneliness. I realized that I was beginning to separate myself from fellow travellers on purpose, was avoiding even the chance at conversation. On my zipline trek our guide took an interest in me, he seemed to admire the adventure in me, my willingness to just let go of my harness, and let go of myself. He invited me to join him and his group of friends at a bar that evening. I was content for having gained that interest by doing nothing more than just being myself. Yet I stayed away. There was no chance in hell I was going to a bar that night, to socialize with a bunch of strangers, to put myself in a position of having to extrovert myself, perhaps even to entertain romantic advances. No. But I was so lonely. Two weeks of communicating only with myself and I had gone from intentional time alone to apathetic seclusion. I hit a wall. I see now that I could have embraced that wall and become stronger for it. Then, all I felt was the wall. Insecurities set in. What the hell was I doing?

I continued on. The ferry to Victoria. The walk along Emily Carr’s old jaunts. Whale watching in the fog. All lovely, all peaceful, all alone. I was invited to dine with some ladies who felt bad for me eating solo- I declined. I continued on to Tofino, fell in love with the beaches, the water, the soft hues and the rugged land. I never wanted to leave. I did. I went to Nanaimo, slept above a bar that had music blaring into the night. It was the most noise I’d heard in almost three weeks. The voices of bar goers hitting the streets after closing time induced fear. I longed for Tofino. I even longed for home although I didn’t care to admit it. I wish I had returned to Tofino.

I continued home, sick, relieved, proud, disappointed. I sensed intrinsically that I had missed out on an opportunity to learn something about myself, something meaningful to my future life.

I missed out again that first year after my move. I spent a lot of time alone that year—a lot. Whether out in coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, or simply wandering the streets, I had ample time for reflection. I would meet people through my various jobs but as each job was worse than the previous, I never stayed long enough to develop any meaningful relationships with anyone. That first Montreal winter, spent mostly alone in my apartment with only my dog for company, that may have been one of the lowest points of my life. Pure, utter solitude. Loneliness. Rather than embrace it I wept. I yearned for friendship, romance, companionship. I found solace in words, in writing. I took to the internet for support and interaction. Nothing filled the void. I lacked the courage to fill my own void.

That was me in my twenties. Looking back, now approaching the cusp of 40, I see that I missed out on an invaluable lesson. One that Christopher Knight may have understood, one that Emily Carr may have understood, and any other who has chosen apartness, seclusion, change, at least once in their lifetime. In my thirties, I now understand.

Although people are social creatures, it is not by being in the company of others that we can find our true selves. Whether you are an extrovert who feeds off the energy of others, or an introvert who prefers introspective silence, we all have an ultimate goal of learning who we are, and being the best of ourselves that we can be. And no matter who you are, if this isn’t achieved, discontentment is the result. And no matter who you are, silence is the key.

This is the secret that one can learn from alone time: Silence is truly golden. Simplicity is everything. Less is where to find more. Lightness follows purging. Freedom can be found in solitude. As such, it is not loneliness that transpires from seclusion or escape, but quite the opposite… if you allow it.

What I mean is, in those times in my life where I had the opportunity to seclude myself, I also had the opportunity to become more of myself—to dive deeper, to become stronger, to become more confidently me. Ultimately, in my twenties, I wasn’t courageous enough to go that far. Thus I sought asylum in the company of others. That loneliness I felt was created from my weaknesses and insecurities. I caused it to exist.

And here is another thing: Introvert or extrovert, it is all the same. I have recognized in my adult life that doors do not open easily for me as they may for others. Connections are not easily made. I sense this is an introvert vs extrovert thing, I know that I must be willing to put myself out there socially in order to earn certain advantages. “It’s who you know,” as they say. But I also recognize that these connections are finite, as all life is finite, and that there is something larger at play—and that is the importance of not only knowing, but being yourself.

I recognize now that even if I don’t ever get the job I always wanted, I will have lived. And even if I never win the lottery, I will have lived. And even if I never write that book, and even if I never sell a painting, and even if that particular dream never is achieved, I will have lived. And lived well.

And I will have loved. And I will have felt a child’s arms around my neck, been called for in the middle of the night, watched a family of seals at play in the ocean, felt the security of a roof over my head each night. I will have felt the sun on my face, I will have tasted peas and tomatoes right off the vine.  I will have been called mom, wife, daughter, sister. I will have listened to the ocean, watched sunrises and sunsets, spent hours in the garden. I will have felt the satisfaction of a good day’s work.

The sum of these experiences equals a life lived. When you cut out the noise, calls to measure your success, comparisons on who has what and who has bigger, there is silence. When you cut out political ranting, news-worthy stories, fear-mongering, talk of borders, talk of religion, there is silence. When you stop wondering what you want to be when you grow up, and simply be, there is silence. When you stop wondering what to do, and simply do, there is silence. When you stop looking for love, and simply love, there is silence.

I have a memory of my mom from when I was a child. It stands out for me as different from most of my other memories growing up. It’s a rare glimpse into a person I never knew my mom to be, a side of her I never saw. She was washing the floor—that was normal enough—but she was in a zone. She had a mood about her, a palpable aura. My mom is very much an extrovert, she is generally someone who loves the spotlight, talks more than listens, and although she has big feelings, she is not someone I consider to be introspective. But in that moment she was in a deeply quiet place. The song The Rose by Bette Midler was playing on cassette, my mom was singing along.  She was having a moment.

The Rose is not just a love song, but a song about love. It’s beautiful, really. It touches the heart in both sad and eager ways. If you love, it can bring you to love harder. If you’re lonely, it can cause you to yearn. Watching my mother, the extroverted social butterfly of the family, it’s her loneliness that I felt.

Knowing this, and feeling this, I know that loneliness strikes us all—all who do not wait for the silence, all who seek to fill the void. It’s when we succumb to the noise, whether external or internal, that we cause ourselves to suffer. And when we let go, it’s then that we are free.

It’s the eccentrics of this world, the hermits, the courageous and the adventurous, who find their way to this lesson. It’s the ones who learn to appreciate the silence who know that it isn’t about the job, the size of the house, the number of friends or how many likes your get on social media. These are the ones who brave seclusion long enough to know that there is no such thing as being alone.

You don’t need to isolate yourself in a forest for 27 years. You don’t need to drive to Mexico. You don’t need to go further than your own backyard, as long as you can drown out the noise. You don’t need to separate yourself from people, you don’t need to deny yourself anything, you don’t need to avoid anything. You don’t need to leave it all behind. Some do, and I admire them, my spirit is moved by that persuasion. But that doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s ok.

But silence does. Simplicity can. Loneliness is but a state of mind. Freedom belongs to us all. All who are courageous enough to seek, a little further, a little deeper into themselves.

I still have yearnings to leave it all behind. I am greatly intrigued by a dream that exists in a small, private space in my heart. Someday, perhaps, I will turn the car in the direction of that dream. For now, I know I have the courage to go deeper, the presence to be more, the strength just to be. Silent.

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