It was a beautifully calm evening with a blood orange sun setting over an ink-coloured ocean. Nothing but an empty Otter Trail stretched away from me east and west. I hadn’t seen another human being for almost two days. I’d spent my time running alone along one of the country’s most pristine trails, intermittently stripping down and heading for an ocean swim, and in the afternoons lazing around with coffee, simply basking in the splendor of my day. I was content and happy. Happier, in fact, than I could remember being for a very long time. Yet that evening, as I shared the day’s wonders with my trusty journal, I suddenly felt that something was missing. I pondered the unexpected emotion until my thoughts drifted to Chris Mc Candles of Into the Wild - “Happiness is only real when shared”. At that moment I questioned my life and life choices.
Generally, from a societal point of view, it is suggested that everything is better when shared. Whether it is sharing a meal, sharing a house, or sharing chocolate and wine... This is a concept I struggled with for a very long time, especially the idea of sharing my chocolate! While growing up and throughout my early 20's I was always rather social. I also realised, however, that I needed to balance companionship with time apart from others in order to regroup and gather the necessary energy to deal with everything and everyone again. Boarding throughout high school though, and living in a shared dormitory environment for several years after that, I did not have much of a choice in the matter. Personal space was limited, frequently and blatantly infringed upon, and definitely a rare privilege rather than a given right!
It was only when I discovered running that I discovered the value of real solitude. The beauty of solitude. For the first time in my life I was able to experience the feeling of being truly alone as opposed to simply feeling alone. I spent hours and hours out in the hills, mountains, beaches, grasslands. It didn’t matter where, or even if there were trails, as long as it was only me and the elements of nature. Soon I began to feel as one with my surroundings. Every sound became clearer, every smell sharper, every colour more vivid, and every breath deeper. I started to value the purity of an environment free of people above human company. I sought only the presence of birds, trees and mountains in my life. There was no human noise to disturb the music of nature, no human waste to detract from nature’s beauty.
Yet with whom was I sharing this beauty? Did it need to be shared? I was already sharing it with all the other creatures of the forests and mountains and grasslands… I was just a simple being, belonging as much as any flower, tree or butterfly. I accepted my surroundings wholly – the rewards as well as the risks – and I felt fully accepted by my surroundings. So did I really need to be accepted by another human being if I was already happy, content and accepted by nature?
I am a firm believer that each of us needs to accept ourselves completely before we can expect others to accept and love us. For if you do not deem yourself acceptable, how can you ever accept the fact that others accept and love you for who you really are? But I have often asked the question - is it that important for us to feel accepted? The answer to this I’ve debated with myself long and hard, but the conclusion I’ve reached is that although we do not necessarily need to be accepted, we do need to feel accepted, by both ourselves and our community.
It was solitude that taught me to better accept myself. Hours of sitting alone, of nothingness. Sitting and reading or writing. Sitting and thinking, sitting and thinking while sipping whisky. Hours of running alone. Moving through nature with only my own thoughts for company. Experiencing incredible highs and tremendous lows of being alone and running alone. Always alone. But all the while getting to know myself better. Growing and learning who I am, what I am, why I am. Coming to terms with the worst of me while trying to celebrate the best of me. Ultimately, striving to accept and love all of what I am.
There is an interesting cycle in solitude and self-acceptance. For as long as we do not accept ourselves, we fear solitude. Yet without solitude, we do not contemplate our lives’ deeper meaning sufficiently to reach self-acceptance. I do not believe we will ever truly reach the pinnacle of genuine and honest acceptance for which we strive. But certainly once we do become more accepting of ourselves, our values and personal needs, it becomes more tolerable to be at ease in complete and extended solitude. I eventually reached a point where I actually reveled in solitude. So much so that I was consciously avoiding people and constantly seeking out solitude. I might even admit to a mild obsession!
The problem though, is that sometimes solitude is just loneliness…
That brings me to company and community – the alternatives to solitude and loneliness – and their pros and cons. As modern humans our concept of community is typically a town, city or other large congregation of humans living together. Somehow we perceive this as belonging, acceptance and companionship, yet we still suffer from feelings of isolation. In many cases self-isolation and depression are even exacerbated by being surrounded by large numbers. That is where the problem of modern community lies – so many people that nobody can hear you. I do not believe we were ever meant to live in large numbers. Read Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and you will understand why I say that. To me a community should be a small, select number of people whom you trust and choose to live amongst.
My thinking on human company is similar to community. The more the merrier, right? Again, in our current era we are brought up to believe that more is better and bigger is better. Just look at the idiotic cars we drive, mansions we build and super sized meals we’re encouraged to shovel down our throats. Drive a faster and more expensive car to impress more people and have more “friends”; buy a bigger house so you can have all your “friends” over; and then feed them excessive amounts of food and alcohol because you really care about their health! Is bigger and more really better? Has quality over quantity been lost forever? Surely we must reach a limit in this seemingly bottomless pit of consumerism.
As I grew up, the more I noticed the world around me becoming “bigger and better” the deeper I delved into my solitude. Along the way I inadvertently discovered a minimalism in me that had been suppressed for a large part of my life. Gradually I started questioning whether certain items in my life were clogging up my space, mental and physical, or truly adding value to my existence. And I soon realised that the same approach was valid for the people in my life. I asked myself who in my “community” was bringing meaning to my life, and equally important, to whose life was I adding value or making a positive difference.
As you can imagine, at this point my community became smaller - much smaller. But the relationships I chose to maintain flourished and became significantly more positive.
From my solitude came greater self acceptance. From having less, I gained so much more.
In short, my life started to have more meaning.
Presently, I am rarely alone. I share life with my adventure partner as we work towards building a mountain base and lifestyle. Whenever I summit a beautiful peak, or reach the bottom of a quad-thrashing descent, I never have to look very far to see the most amazing smile flashing back at me. And in that moment of inner happiness, shared happiness, I know that it is real and true.
“Happiness is only real when shared.”