"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." –– Blaise Pascal
It was first period, and we couldn't keep quiet. The classroom was filled with boisterous laughs. It was hot. Packed tightly together in the small trailer, world history was the last thing on our minds. A new virus was flickering in the news, and we all had enough of school. Rumor had it if someone got sick, they would cancel school. "Someone needs to take one for the team," yelled a kid from the back of the room. That day, I laughed. Today, I flinch.
My family and I huddled together in the frigid winter cold. We were up in Vermont, surrounded by fresh snowfall and glistening mountains. Our New Year's dinner was sweet and luxurious, almost like a farewell gift from 2019. The year was as new as an untouched child. It would slowly lose its innocence.
March kicked down the door. In an instant, everything moved to a virtual world. Friends and classmates became distant. Screens dominated my days. Space crept in. I tried to run away. From new gadgets to pointless hobbies, I tried to fill the free time I had. Being alone is a different kind of discomfort. It isn't the thrill-seeking and adventure-traveling from one island to another. Silence gives you a chance to listen to something important. Yourself. At first, I didn't listen. But the solitude grew heavy and abundant for me to carry alone. In late May, my best friend and I decided to start a challenge. It's called 75Hard. It consisted of two 45 minute workouts, one outside, drinking a gallon of water, sticking to a diet, reading ten pages, and taking a progress photo. I had to do this for 75 days without fail. Some days, I finished my workout in the dark on the porch. Other times, I would hold my stomach after chugging two glasses of water before bed. It wasn't easy. But I developed the first quality of solitude; concentration. In a world that competes for your attention, the ability to block out noise and commit to one thing is gold. Without focus, it is impossible to progress in one direction because you are pulled towards so many other ones. With this newfound discipline and mental strength, I could do anything I set my mind to.
The summer air was sticky with boredom and humid with dread. The banana-baking and Tiger King days were over. Nowhere to go and nothing to do, I started to write. At first, they were short paragraphs summarizing chapters from books. Then, the posts grew longer, and my excitement grew. For me, writing isn't just recording my thoughts. It is a tool for how I think. Writing helps me look inward and see what bubbles to the surface. The discipline from the 75Hard carried through. In July, I published every day for 60 days. After school started, I have never missed a week. Self-observation is the second pillar of solitude. Writing is how I listen to myself and find what I truly believe. Instead of consuming the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs of others, I develop my own. When you think, you can attack ideas from multiple perspectives and set things straight. You can explain and expand upon points while deleting what is messy and unorderly. Writing is capturing thinking in its rawest form. It reflects what goes on in my head.
Lush summer meadows rolled into crimson autumn forests. The new school year started, and I longed for real conversations. My shelves were empty of stories. Before, I stocked them with the next up-and-coming nonfiction books. But most great books are old. They are the ones that generations before me were reading, yet their lessons still apply today. These books are revolutionary and change the way you think, act, and live. The best way to find old books? Go to a used bookstore. They don't have glossy hard-covered books, but they supply an abundance of radical ideas. I came home with two armfuls of books, enough to last me two years. My shelves now hold the words of Charles Darwin, Plato, and Stephen Hawking. I mastered the third pillar of solitude; aged reading. You can't fly through these books. You have to take two or three hours to understand a chapter. This isn't just reading anymore. It's reading to understand, question, and develop a conversation with the author. You have to think by yourself, something that most people don't do.
I failed at the last pillar of solitude. Conversations with living people. At the beginning of the year, it didn't matter much. The county canceled school, and I was happy. The 75Hard challenge gave me the purpose to move forwards. Then, I spent most of the summer in the four walls of my bedroom. It was hard, but I got around that too. I turned to write. School started, and I felt like I didn't have companions, so books helped me in that season. But it wasn't until the last few weeks of December where it all came down.
All of this isolation and modified living disconnected me. I tried so hard to make each day exciting and different. I forgot what made my days that way. Relationships with people. Talking to other people is like holding a mirror up to yourself, a form of self-examination I missed. Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation- The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, writes, "Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It is where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard and of being understood. Conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life.”
What is most painful for most to admit is this year was another experience, but my reaction was a choice. I am responsible for my happiness. It is my choice. Yes, things are different, but adaptability to accommodate our human needs is essential. I developed fundamental parts of introspection, but I forgot the most important part. People and conversations.
2020 armed me with knowledge and reflection. 2021 will be a year to ease up on the restraints and find joy in people. Prioritize learning from people. Talk with them, laugh with them, cry with them. There are many beautiful souls, but there can be some misleading ones. Be cautious, but don't be afraid. Teach what you learn to whoever will listen and eagerly listen to their stories too. Be curious. Be open. Drink in the world. It offers the nourishment you need.
I think I made good progress in 2020. However, I do realize my shortcomings. I will bring what I learned into the New Year but focus on fixing my mistakes. This year was different for all of us, but I encourage you not to view this as a 'once in a lifetime' year. Who knows what is to come? The only way to prepare is by looking at what we did right and what we need to work on. If I learned anything this year, it's that we can't forget to look in the most obvious places for answers. Whether through focus, thinking, reading, or conversing, we often know more than we think we do. Don't be afraid of digging deep and looking within. There is an entire galaxy within you waiting for exploration. Remember to look.