In Defense of Solitude

It has been many years since I first read the short story “Once Upon a Time” by the South African writer Nadine Gordimer, yet every word of the tale remains imprinted in my mind. It is a beautifully written story about a family in apartheid South Africa that tries to protect itself from the dangers outside the walls of its home but instead lose a child to those same defenses—it’s a haunting, emotional, thoughtful story.

There are many lessons that can be learned from Gordimer’s story: that we need to understand our neighbors, the environment, and the world around us. This is especially true in today’s world, in our ever changing and fully connected here and now, despite its differences from the setting of “Once Upon a Time.”

We live in a world that is faster, more connected. The family in Gordimer’s tale hears about the riots and burglaries through rumors from neighbors and vague sounds at night—there was no Internet in the story, no immediate source of information.

But today, everything happens so quickly—changes of presidencies, regimes, governments—and the news of all these things travel just as fast. Today, we have the Internet. We have access to the New York Times and the BBC. We have access to blogs, micro blogs, and other, ever-shorter media—an incessant flood of information that overwhelms us.


Given the wealth of information within reach, we have developed a need to always be in the know, to always be aware of everything that is happening. And so we multitask constantly to satiate this desire. Our days are spent rotating between many tasks all at once; we listen to lectures and do homework and write essays while at the same time answering texts, checking email, reading the news, scrolling through Facebook, and looking at Twitter.

The ability to multitask is often considered a point of pride, a vaunted skill to show off. But this ability, this preference for doing many things at once is not all good. In the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” This advice is as today as it was back then, especially in a time when many have lost the ability to stay focused on a task for long periods of time.

Moreover, the act of multitasking is ultimately detrimental—studies suggest that people who multitask frequently show lower levels of concentration and creativity. They often fail to determine what is relevant and what is irrelevant, and are more easily distractible. Most damning of all, multitaskers struggle at switching between tasks, supposedly the biggest advantage of their skillset.

The vast amounts of information that surround us pose other dangers as well. In a lecture to the plebe class at West Point in October of 2009, William Deresiewicz said that “Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it.” Yet this is exactly what we lack; by saturating our minds with information from all these sources—from the Times, the BBC, and all those blogs—we are simply taking in the opinions of other people. We are simply reading and regurgitating what other people say and think about a given issue. We let others do the thinking, but we are not thinking for ourselves, not developing our own ideas.

What we lack today are moments of solitude, moments devoid of distractions, moments of peace. We are constantly surrounded by people and information, always rushing from place to place, moving from the completion of one class or meeting or assignment and straight onto the next without a pause. Even outside of those environments, we are still surrounded by people, in our dorms, in our dining halls, everywhere we go.

We are surrounded by our phones, our laptops, our televisions—a constant, never-ending flow of news and opinions. We are surrounded by the noise of the world. The result is that we rarely have time in solitude, time to think and reflect without the chatter of voices or the vibration of phones.

And so we have lost something vital, for there is a deep intrinsic value in the act of solitary, isolated, single-minded work. The solitude of a woodshop, the quiet of the library, the isolation of wilderness—the very nature of these types of work allow for concentration and introspection. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow says that he likes “what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.”

Marlow suggests a need for self-awareness, aware of who we are and what we think. It is an awareness that must come from within, an awareness unfiltered and unadulterated by the opinions of others.

In many respects, Gordimer writes about the same need; the tragedy of “Once Upon a Time” comes about due to the family’s lack of knowledge. Their understanding of their neighborhood is derived solely from what they hear on the news or through rumors. They lose what is most precious because they have not thought for themselves.

Franklin R. Li ’17 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Canaday Hall.