Loneliness is just a word; it can be good for you

I was walking up Madison Avenue on my way home from Bainbridge’s Grand Olde Fourth Parade surrounded by what appeared to be every man, woman, child and half the canine population of the island. I was pondering a question my 3 1/2 year old grandson had asked me earlier. Owen asked if I thought there could be imaginary bears living in the woods around our yard.

I’m still working on the proper answer to this deeply philosophical question. And when I think of deep philosophical questions, I always think about Ansuman Biswas. He was the lucky bloke selected about a decade ago from among 300 applicants to spend 40 days in isolation in a Gothic Tower that is part of the Manchester Museum in England. According to the BBC, Biswas was to spend his 40 days contemplating “things lost” and reflecting on the global and spiritual impact of extinction.

The BBC said Biswas would have no human contact during his 40-day stay, although the report did note that, as part of what the museum director described as its “ultimate live exhibit,” Biswas would be making regular reports to the outside world through an internet blog.

Putting aside for a moment the philosophical question of whether a person connected to the outside world by the internet can truly be considered to be “isolated,” I found myself envying Biswas and his self-imposed but temporary exile from the rat race.

I think the envy I felt was a symptom of what Garrison Keillor once diagnosed as PMSS, (Personal Male Secrecy Syndrome), a common male disorder characterized by an overwhelming desire to climb a tree and sit on a high limb for a few hours, or go for a long drive with no destination and no company except for the radio or a favorite CD.

As Keillor points out in defense of all those similarly afflicted, there is nothing wrong or odd about wanting to be alone from time to time. One can love company and conversation, and also love uncompany and silence. Wise men through the ages have extolled the virtues of a little seclusion and silence as a means of recharging the psychic batteries and jumpstarting the creative process.

Wasn’t it Henry David Thoreau who said that he never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude? And didn’t Voltaire say that the happiest of all lives is a busy solitude?

It’s easy to confuse the heady, intoxicating wine of solitude with the bitter tonic of loneliness, of course. As the great philosopher Paul Tillich pointed out, it’s interesting that our language has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone and the similar word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.

It is important if one is in a marital relationship that one’s spouse understands and supports a man in the throes of a severe case of PMSS, and not mistake the innocent desire for a little alone time with a lack of interest in the conjugal life. Fortunately for me, my wife has a high tolerance for my many quirks. It helps that whenever I feel the need for a little down time, I’m not inclined to travel to a distant cave or a Gothic Tower, but instead take myself out to the back yard where I occupy my hands with utilitarian tasks while my mind wanders on the breeze to wherever it is inclined to go.

The result is not just that I come back to earth refreshed and revived, but when I get there, the lawn is mowed, the garden is weeded, and the imaginary bear scat has been composted and spread on the imaginary rose bushes. Thoreau also said that he always had a great deal of company in his house, particularly in the morning when nobody came calling. I feel that way about being alone. If you’re really doing it right, you’re never more connected to the world than when you’re alone in it. That’s either a paradox or a dichotomy. Maybe I’ll ask Biswas if he knows which it is. And while I’m at it, I’ll ask him if his Gothic Tower was occupied by any imaginary ghosts.

Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper.