People are strange when you’re a stranger,
Faces look ugly when you’re alone.
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted,
Streets are uneven when you’re down.
When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain.
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name
When you’re strange,
When you’re strange,
When you’re strange.
The above lyrics are from the band The Doors from their album Strange Days (1967). Strangely, I feel there is a lot of this in solitary spirituality. Clearly the lyric above applies to the dark/sick sort of solitude, and as such it serves a warning to all who embark in true solitary spirituality – am I doing it because of fear or love? In the end that’s what all questions of praxis boil down to.
Many poets have remarked on the paradoxical nature of loneliness. And almost everyone has experienced it first hand: going a party where you know no one, or being in a group where you feel no affinity to any of its members. Obviously the feeling of connectedness is in large part, if not wholly related to how much love we feel. A heart brimming with love will quickly connect with the most disparate crowds. A closed, cold heart will be very much alone even if in the middle of adoring crowds. This is an old story. For example, Epictetus in his Discourses (Book 3, Chpt. 13) talks about the solitary this way:
“When then we have lost either a brother, or a son, or a friend on whom we were accustomed to repose, we say that we are left solitary, though we are often in Rome, though such a crowd meet us, though so many live in the same place, and sometimes we have a great number of slaves. For the man who is solitary, as it is conceived, is considered to be a helpless person and exposed to those who wish to harm him.”
Psychologically, being in a depressive state, or worse a manic-depressive state, will ensure complete incapacity to feel connections. It is very lonely place to be.
Theologically, the devil will always try to separate one from another. It is not simply the case that “united we stand” – it is rather the case that united, i.e. compassionate hearts, are godly, and thus impervious to the devil’s roarings.
Looking briefly at Jesus’ temptations in the desert, it is noticeable that the devil takes him places where he is set above and distant from everyone – the top of a mountain to look at the kingdoms, the top of the temple. And even when he says “make bread out of stones” it shows independence. Jesus’ reply always points to interdependence – between man and God, and people to each other – buying a loaf of bread from the baker does more than provide employment for a baker. It is more than that. The baker’s self worth is tied to his productivity, and my own position as dependent on the gifts of another places me existentially within a very flat web of voluntary relationships from mutual need.
Even though sometimes markets are seen as vicious and destructive, they do not have to be – they express the fundamental truth of love for neighbor. The mutually free exchange of goods and services allows me to remember that I depend on the gifts and toil of others for my existence, just as much as they depend on me.
Granted, there are elements in markets which, if left unchecked, may eventually cause the market to collapse. But is this not the same thing with any living thing? Do not cells which do not follow the “rules” end up as cancer? And plants which are disproportionately adapted to an environment (by this I usually mean transplants which did not have to grow within the “rules” of the local ecosystem) end up as weeds?
Still, within some bounds it is clear that the give and take of commerce is the very fabric of mutually recognized neighborliness and affection. Epictetus (again) knows this:
But the doctrine of philosophers promises to give us security even against these things. And what does it say? “Men, if you will attend to me, wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you will not feel sorrow, nor anger, nor compulsion, nor hindrance, but you will pass your time without perturbations and free from everything.” When a man has this peace, not proclaimed by Caesar (for how should he be able to proclaim it?), but by God through reason, is he not content when he is alone? when he sees and reflects, “Now no evil can happen to me; for me there is no robber, no earthquake, everything is full of peace, full of tranquility: every way, every city, every meeting, neighbor, companion is harmless. One person whose business it is, supplies me with food; another with raiment; another with perceptions, and preconceptions. And if he does not supply what is necessary, He gives the signal for retreat, opens the door, and says to you, ‘Go.’ Go whither? To nothing terrible, but to the place from which you came, to your friends and kinsmen, to the elements: what there was in you of fire goes to fire; of earth, to earth; of air, to air; of water to water: no Hades, nor Acheron, nor Cocytus, nor Pyriphlegethon, but all is full of Gods and Demons.” When a man has such things to think on, and sees the sun, the moon and stars, and enjoys earth and sea, he is not solitary nor even helpless. “Well then, if some man should come upon me when I am alone and murder me?” Fool, not murder you, but your poor body. (see full text here.)
The solitary, far from meeting a crowd of ugly and wicked people, looks at all these new neighbors with love and compassion and serves them in two fundamental ways: in silence and in withdrawal.
In silence the solitary walks through the marketplace without judging. Open to potential opportunities for new relationships based on love and trust.
In withdrawal the solitary walks through the market unaffected by the emotional turmoil within it. By looking at all things with equanimity the solitary is able to discern their true value – and reveal it to others. Some things, let us be honest, are junk. Some are priceless. Who can tell? Only one whose heart is balanced and free.
The solitary’s presence in the marketplace both ennobles it and condemns it. Without passing a single judgment the solitary shines a light in the heart of the market, of the neighborhood, and enables others to see what is there. As Epictetus says: “Show to them in your own example what kind of men philosophy makes, and don’t trifle. When you are eating, do good to those who eat with you; when you are drinking, to those who are drinking with you; by yielding to all, giving way, bearing with them, thus do them good, and do not spit on them your phlegm.”
The true paradox is that this is not always welcome.