Life Rushes Back: Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Gifts of Solitude

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 7:49am
Life Rushes Back: Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Gifts of Solitude

The writer's words from 1955 resonate even more profoundly today in an era of technological ubiquity. A meditation on the gifts of solitude, loneliness, and silence.

Post by:
Mariah Helgeson (@mariahism),  associate producer for On Being
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10 ReflectionsRead/Add Yours

A man and his dog walk among thousands of starfish washed ashore on the beach at Budleigh Salterton in Devon, England.

Credit: Matt Cardy License: Getty Images.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea first met the hands of readers in 1955. Yet, even reading it in 2014, it's abundantly clear that our discomfort with solitude and our eagerness to fill the void with the dull hum of gadgets has not changed one bit. Her gentle writing is a balm for all those lost in the white noise of the modern era, and an essential guide back home:

"We are all in the last analysis, alone. And this basic state of solitude is not something we have any choice about. It is, as the poet Rilke says, 'not something that one can take or leave. We are solitary. We may delude ourselves and act as though this were not so. That is all. But how much better is it to realize that we are so, yes, even to begin by assuming it. 'Naturally,' he goes on to say, 'we will turn giddy.'

Naturally, how one hates to think of oneself as alone. How one avoids it. It seems to imply rejection or unpopularity. An early wallflower panic still clings to the word. One will be left, one fears, sitting in a straight-backed chair, alone while the popular girls are already chosen and spinning around the dance floor with their hot-palmed partners. We seems o frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Even if family, friends, and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void. Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone any more. we can do our house-work with soap-opera heroes at our side. Even day-dreaming was more creative than this; it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life. Now, instead of planting our solitude with our own dream blossoms, we choke the space with continuous music, chatter, and companionship to which we do not even listen. It is simply there to fill the vacuum. When the noise stops there is no inner music to take its place.

We must re-learn to be alone. It is a difficult lesson to learn today — to leave one's friend and family and deliberately practice the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week. For me, the break is the most difficult. Parting is inevitably painful, even for a short time. It is like an amputation, I feel. A limb is being torn off, without which I shall be unable to function. And yet once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before. It is as if in parting one did actually lose an arm. And then, like the starfish one grows it anew: one is whole again, complete and round — more whole, even than before, when the other people had pieces of one."

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Mariah Helgeson is an associate producer at On Being. She earned a degree in International Affairs with concentrations in the Middle East and Conflict Resolution from George Washington University. She grew up in Minnesota and was a program associate at the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network. When she’s not submerged in a good book she might be found laughing with her teenage sisters or playing chamber music.

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10Reflections

I really liked this piece--thank you. Sometimes balancing companionship or familial relationships against actualizing the desire to achieve a dream can be difficult. Taking solitary time and remembering that essential independence is helpful for this, especially in remembering that we have the freedom to make our own decisions. Sounds basic, but it's important to remember! Thanks!

Interesting and powerful words, and yet, a bit too dramatic.
I used to romanticize inner void/emptiness/nothingness the same way. But incidentally, in the past few days I have learned that one can use the body-metaphor of "hunger"/physical emptiness to gain a more balanced view of it. You do not want to be full all the time, and if you stay hungry for a long time you will suffer and die. The art is in working "with hunger". Listening to it and respecting it and fulfilling it. I am not sure though, it's a work in progress :)

I especially like the line :"When the noise stops, there is no music to take its place. The people I most enjoy seeing are the ones who take walks by themselves, read books, write letters they mail--in other words, people who can live by themselves without the distractions coming from constant attention to Smartphones and Netflix. Wordsworth said it, "the world is too much with us."

I have lived alone for 15 years. My dog is my only companion. I have no partner and I'm not looking for one. I travel alone, hike alone, sing alone and garden alone. Sometimes I listen to music. Most often I listen to silence. I am a nurse and I work with people. I have friends but I don't need them around me all the time. I think I'm less distracted now and better able to meet each relationship individually and with my whole self than I was before. I'm calmer than I used to be and less afraid. Solitude need not be lonely. It has taught me to listen and participate more fully in my relationships. It has brought me a strong, centered sense of self and inner peace.

I related completely to your life. I to have been alone for 25 years. My dog is my companion. I have friends but my peace comes in my solitude.I love hiking alone...it gives me the opportunity to fully appreciate and take in my surroundings. I to am a nurse and feel I give so much that being alone allows me to recharge. I feel my aloneness is an accomplishment and gives me strength. I realize this, we are not alone in our aloneness.

I love her words, and especially, her book, Gift from the Sea. I'm a mother, a wife, and owner of my second business. I hike approx. 800 miles a year in the foothills and mountains in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Many of these are traveled alone, deliberately, and the solitude has made all the difference in my life and in my world. I'm pretty sure I'm more lovable, too. Solitude is the only way we can truly listen to ourselves... our own thoughts – the good, the bad and the ugly. It is where self awareness is born. As a life and leadership coach, I find myself daring my clients to find time for solitude, and by this I don't mean a commute to work that is done alone. Many people are sold on the concept and value of solitude, but fear it all the same. Anyhow, great stuff. Thanks for sharing!

I read this book for the first time in a freshman course at BYU in 1980. In the years since then, I have loaned the book to friends and bought copies of it for others. Each time I re-read it during different stages of my life, I gain a slightly different meaning or perspective to highlighted passages. Like others who have shared their reflections here, I gain so much insight during times of solitude and this book is a special text in that regard.

I think this doesn't go far enough. People actively seeking wisdom and knowledge need time to be quiet and seek God. In these quiet times God will come in the small still voice and if you are open to him you will hear his message. Thanks for sharing this interesting subject.

The lady who is a nurse said that solitude has brought her more fully in to her personal relationships. This is so true, contrary to popular psychology which believes solitude steers one away from these relationships. Solitude is not a dwelling place. It is a place we visit so we can return home to share what we have found on our visits there. Henri Nouwen is so clear on this in The Way of the Heart. Anthony Storr, Solitude a Return to Self talks about needing to find the capacity to be alone in order to enter into solitude. The piece is good, but lacks guidance on getting to solitude,maybe the book offers it. One truth that rings true is when you stop and dont hear any music its a sure sign you need solitude

I remember reading the Lindbergh book as a kid (it was on the bookshelf). I liked it well enough, but the tone seemed verging on the melancholic. Now that I see she was quoting the somber poet Rilke, that makes sense.

I fundamentally disagree with the premise that "we are alone" either literally or figuratively, and that there is some kind of deep truth embodied in the statement. . If you take that notion on the authority of a poet you're in logical trouble. The evidence isn't supportive of the premise. Social animals seek out each other's company. To the extent that people distract themselves from meaningful social interaction with gadgetry and gimmicks, well, so much the worse for them. There are more people alive now than at any time in human history. We now know that non-human cells outnumber human cells in the body by a ratio of 10:1. No, we are not alone, not even among the cells of our bodies, but we can learn to become comfortable with the fruits of solitude through mindful living.

This is not inherently difficult to do if you simply make the time and simply pay attention. It may be boring at times, but that is hardly important. Perhaps what people really fear is boredom. But fear of boredom is hardly a poetic sentiment!

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