By Philip Wylie
AN ACQUAINTANCE rounded my house and found me sitting in the garden beside my lily pool. “Taking a break?” he asked. “Just-thinking,” I said. The man laughed. “Oh! Plotting a story.” “No. Thinking.”
Opportunities to just think, alone and undisturbed, are not easy to find. Our homes and offices-if they are in cities-are not suitable for quiet cogitation. Even in the suburbs, our houses often rumble as the clothes drier whirls, churn and hiss as the dishes are washed, and whine while the vacuum cleaner does its work. Outdoors, it’s hard to find a lake that is not as noisy as klaxon factory with outboard motors, or a stretch of steam that’s fit to sit beside for a pensive hour.
We have grown so accustomed to this clamor of human activity that we accept it as inescapable. Many of us have even come to regard thoughtful solitude as unnatural. The shocking implication is that the human spirit must be diverted from the calamitous temptation of its own company. But people weren’t always like that. Even teen-agers, when I was one, liked periods of quiet contemplation.
At the age of 18 I spent several months with three companions deep in the Canadian woods. We were often as quiet as the wilderness itself. Once, for two days, I was lost from the others. Knowing that they would find me, I built a fire and stayed where I was. I cannot recall that I felt lonely, even then; there was plenty to think about.
Indeed, as I have learned, it is only when one is alone that one can make a real acquaintance with oneself. Whatever it is that you recognize as “you” is what goes on in your mind, heart, spirit and imagination, quite free of outside stimulus. And knowledge of that self is, in a sense , all the actual knowledge you can ever have; the rest is in books or other people’s heads. We still pay lip service to the ancient counsel “Know thyself”; you can’t know anybody else the same way.
When I was a boy it was expected that every youth would spend hours gazing ate the sky-“daydreaming,” as it was called. Few objected to this; most people understood that the dreamers grew up to become the doers. For a grown man without a dream can add nothing to what we still call “the American dream.”
Today, however, a daydreaming boy is often prodded to meaningless activity by nervous parents who fear that solitude is somehow dangerous. A boy in reverie is hurriedly sent down the street to play games, lest he become antisocial. As a result, you people pass through adolescence with no practice in testing their inner selves. And schools foster this avoidance of self. Instead of emphasizing the need for self-realization, they teach young people “group adjustment.”
An “adjusted” youth will naturally seek to preserve the one condition to which he knows how to adjust: the safe, present state. Actually, his goal should be adjustment to an ever-changing world. Our society is in so swift a flux that only a man who deeply knows himself can decide which of the changing ideas he will accept as part of what he believes and feels and is, which ideas he will reject.
It is not that I deny the gregariousness of man, or belittle our pleasures in each other’s company. But in company the measure of a man’s worth is how much he can give to a group. He who brings special excitement to the otherwise tedious round of conventional activities is the sought-after guest, the desired friend. And that that person, always, is one who has studied and learned enough of himself to be more than a carbon copy of others.
The ideal surrounding for the study of oneself is some untouched bit of the outdoors, which, in spite of man’s exploitation of nature, still offers relatively secluded spots for meditation. But solitude can be created in the mind wherever a person can spend time alone. With a little practice even a man in a crowd can be alone.
It is the ever-lessening desire for solitude that worries me. If we could recover both the appetite for being alone and its fruitful product, self-awareness, America would again produce the dreaming doers who once enriched a lonely land of pioneers. We need such people as never before; thinkers, who can face the titanic problems peculiar to our time.