Guardian(s) of (the Galaxy of) Solitude
Why introspection needs a bouncer at the door and how relationships depend on you having an annual pass to your own world
At the intersection of psychology and art is the poet I credit for bringing me to therapy.
In my college years, whenever I read the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, a cocoon engulfed me in which it felt safe to be the kind of human I was.
Through soft and loving language, Rilke normalized being an introspective, sensitive, living-in-the-question kind of weirdo who knew, but couldn’t quite name aloud, that many values of the culture I belonged to were deeply and defiantly rooted in making profane everything I found sacred and vice versa.
And what must that mean about me… Cynical questions with cynical answers about my belonging that his poetry gave more welcoming answers to.
Among Rilke’s cherished perspectives, he valued the light and dark of the inner self. He viewed transformation not as an external act but one of the deep soul.
In "The Solitary", Rilke describes the experience of being alone as a divine space that can only be entered with reverence:
"Solitude is like a rain
That cleanses and renews the earth
It feeds the soul and nourishes the heart
It is a place of transformation and rebirth"
Rilke suggested that solitude is not something to be feared or avoided, but rather embraced as a beautiful and necessary part of the human experience. A cleansing. A path to truth.
In fact, solitude is so important, he named a "guardian of solitude" as a necessary protector; a guide in this journey toward self-discovery.
Being alone — and being comfortable there — can surely become its own mechanism of avoidance. Especially when left unquestioned; when it becomes a default habit, a comfort zone no longer worth leaving.
But also, being comfortable alone is where we learn to tolerate the parts of being human that we may otherwise rely on external stimuli to soothe in us. It’s one of the true places we discover who we are. There is no self-growth without our own solitude. There is no relationship with other without our own solitude.
Solitude with Other
Some of my closest friends are people I can share my introversion with. Our time together doesn’t have to be active, outspoken, or performed outside of us, but rather inward and still, where we actually make more conversation than ever.
By tending to our inner worlds, we exude vitality in the energy between us. It may look boring and empty from the outside but is some of the most kinetic connection I experienced.
When it comes to intimate relationships, solitude is so necessary that Rilke tasks each partner with the guardianship of the other’s.
He accepts, rather, embraces that, no matter the level of intimacy between two people, some amount of distance will always remain.
This is both beautiful and utterly tragic.
The “greatest possible trust,” as he calls it, is not a further attempt to merge, but rather to guard the solitude of the other as much as you might guard your own. To forgo the wounded instinct to catalog solitude as an act of abandonment or an indication of straying interest, but instead, see it as the ultimate enactment of safety and closeness between two people.
Those who can be deeply alone together create the closest bond.
He calls this the very “point of marriage…”
“…not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.
A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development.
But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
Of course, like the avoidance shield of too much aloneness, too much solitude in a relationship can have its pitfalls.
Open communication, quality time, and a mutual meeting of needs must exist in the foundation of the relationship in order for solitude to, indeed, not become avoidance or abandonment.
Hiding in plain sight is not the purpose of solitude. Instead, it’s about building a partnership where your relationship with yourself is tended to as much as your relationship with your partner.
Healing Old Wounds in Shared Solitude
My partner and I speak about guarding each other’s solitude often.
Our old wiring activates at times and we’re reminded of being children in our respective homes, having our solitude intruded upon by adults who didn’t understand the sacredness of this place.
We remember adults whose anxiety frequently intruded into our solitude with urgency, guilt, and shame. We remember the various ways we built moats around ourselves to find safe solitude in the midst of the overwhelmed.
It is in these moments when we realize the most how important our role is to guard each other’s solitude; to eliminate as many opportunities as possible to where we may scare, guilt, or shame our partner for needing to be with themselves.
Solitude in Masculine-Dominant Cultures
In so many aspects of Western culture, introspection, imagination, and stillness are qualities generally undervalued or stigmatized.
The emphasis on rationality and empiricism in Western thought centers reason and objectivity while devaluing many versions of subjective experiences. There’s a tendency to dismiss anything that cannot be measured or observed objectively.
The emphasis on productivity and material success in Western society can lead to a devaluation of activities that are seen as unproductive, such as daydreaming or imaginative play.
In a culture that emphasizes extraversion, external validation, and status in social networks, being alone was my favorite pastime. I didn’t experience it as loneliness, but rather as being my own company.
Loneliness exists for me, too, of course. But it is wholly different than solitude and has nothing to do with how many people are available for connection.
Loneliness is a cut-off; an energetic amputation from both others and myself. A balance of authentic connection with others and solitude with myself becomes the fertile, connective, awe-inspiring spirit of adventure that rebuilds the bridges across those gaps.
Rilke gave words to an experience I always had but never knew was okay. Often ridiculed for my “active imagination,” I felt like an unacceptable version of a person; someone to avoid, someone who would never be understood by anyone other than myself.
But Rilke’s take on solitude is that it’s not only a personal matter but also a relational one. This gave me hope that tending to my own inner world didn’t sequester me from relationships with people I might come to care for. In fact, it could bring me closer than I ever could imagine.
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