This is in response to May Sarton’s ‘The Rewards of Living A Solitary Life’. Please do comment!
I refuse to give this reading response a pedestrian opening. I will not settle for ‘May Sarton’s essay, “The Rewards of Living a Solitary Life”, in its entirety, is about…’ and so on. No one can sum up this piece of validation, this piece of recognition, of what it truly means to dare to live alone in a sentence of less than twenty unique combinations of the English alphabet.
Hence, I will begin my response with this: May Sarton was homosexual.
And maybe it was her homosexuality that drove her to choose a solitary life over the continued rebellion against society’s status quo and the struggle with her emotions. Maybe she, too, had to take the plunge her friend took, and discover that perhaps, she was not such a bad person to be with after all. No matter what her previous circumstances, it is evident in her writing that she truly enjoys her life of solitude, describing it with a certain delicacy that gives even her dullest affairs, like watering plants, a poetic flounce. It is her ‘zone’, in a manner of speaking. However, her high praise for the perks of living alone could make one question her true thoughts. Could she be hiding her fear of societal rejection behind a thin veneer of proud individualism? Could it be that Miss Sarton lacked the confidence to face other individuals, and so had to settle for a life of lonesomeness?
That would be a perversion of her true intentions, to my mind. Her words (“Solitude is the salt of personhood”, “Alone we can afford to be wholly who we are”) are a reflection of honest opinions, and are in no way a defence in lieu of strength of character. To her, solitude is an opportunity for self-discovery, and even to some extent, an adventure – not an excuse to shy away from the challenge of fulfilling the expectations of others. It is her belief that making the conscious choice to live alone is an act of bravery – daring to see yourself as the person you truly are, to strip away all opulent glorifications you may have inclined to place upon yourself, and to stand before the world, metaphorically, naked. And I could not agree more. Who are we but the people we are when we are alone? Personal experience tells me that I am not myself with other people. External communication requires that I put on an elaborate façade and give away a little of the ‘Lillian-of-the-day’ to every person I meet or talk to. Inevitably, I lose the ability to see the world through my own eyes. Instead, I am hovering above my physical self, watching my every move through a foggy glass ceiling clouded with the opinions and thoughts of others. And like Miss Sarton, this is when true loneliness sets in.
Here, however, I have to disagree with this extraordinary piece of writing. Although I do feel the same way as Miss Sarton does after a long day of conversation and experience, loneliness is not always a negative feeling. After all, however am I supposed to feel full again if I have not been emptied? And although the writer may find that the senses are dulled when experiences are shared, I, on the contrary, feel that they are merely halved as to share one great experience between two separate minds. The sensation of being with others is not always ‘suffering from our differences in taste’. In fact, it is refreshing, for it is in others that I see reflected a different image of me. My faults and positive qualities are all at once magnified in the eyes of another, and the moments of loneliness that follow allow me to reflect on the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are reasons as to why I hesitated to reveal that shred of personal truth that day, why I softened my perception for the sake of the men and women around me. And the moments of loneliness urge me to ask myself – what do I have to hide? It is in these moments that I know what I have to do to become a better person. And I think these moments worked their magic for Miss Sarton, too. She needed time to find herself again in the vast emptiness that was left behind after all she had given away during the day. And she did find herself – better, braver and wiser.
Choosing to live a solitary life is truly an act of courage, for the prospect of discovering nothing after a long, hard, look into the depths of your soul is frightening. But upon finding something, and even liking it, being alone suddenly becomes a gift. Even so, only when coupled with encounters saturated with other human presences can we fully appreciate the profundity of solitary life. One cannot exist without the other, for much like Miss Sarton’s ‘charming friend’ it is from the fear of being isolated that we see ourselves for who we really are. Even the writer herself ritually goes through the motions of rediscovering herself after a hectic day – the small instances of self-awareness and inward adventure come during those moments of acute loneliness. But selflessly giving small pieces of yourself away only to be filled later, in solitude, with a renewed sense of self – that is most beautiful of all.