The Importance of Solitude

by Dale Easley

May 21, 2003

The average student at UNO seems to being missing something crucial to their education: solitude. Many work at least part time. Most commute. Kids at home eat up time. And the cell phone seems to be always on. When do students take the time to do nothing?

Doing nothing does not include watching television, reading a book, or chatting with friends. By doing nothing I mean just that—sitting quietly alone. After a few minutes—or only seconds—most of us start feeling anxious. There is so much to do. A cup of coffee would be nice. I'd better call my friend. I just need some mindless activity like watching TV to help me relax. Sitting quietly is hard work!

Years ago I read a book called Solitude: A Return to the Self. Its main thesis was that solitude was an essential component of creativity. It supported this thesis with numerous examples from the lives of writers and artists, often showing the decline in their creative output once they lost the solitude that came before their creativity. A similar explanation can be given for why the work of so many writers and artists declines after they become celebrities. And it helps explain why many UNO students have an attitude of "Just give me the degree and let me out of here."

Many students will claim that they don't have the time for solitude. I don't believe them. All of us have many activities and people in our lives that eat up our time but contribute little or nothing. Be honest with yourself. Be ruthless. Cut out the parts that aren't making your life better. I'm not saying to avoid your responsibilities, but beyond that you have to say no to people and activities sometimes. Hurt some feelings if you have to. But create the time for yourself even when socializing seems easier.

Most UNO students are here at least partly to improve their career chances. Joseph Campbell said there are two ways to go about choosing a career: (1) study the statistics and identify future opportunities or (2) pursue the thing you love, regardless of job opportunities. (See Finding Your Vocation.) The latter doesn't guarantee you a job, but it does lead to a life you'll love. If you can't make a living doing it, then get a job that will give you the time to pursue it on your own time. You won't have a lot of money, but you'll be rich in the things that count.

My dad loved farming, but his job was as an aircraft mechanic. We raised a big garden and a few cows. Nearly every day when dad left work, he would head home and out to the pasture to check on his cows. He'd drive out in his old Jeep and make sure the electric fence was working. Looking back on it, I'm sure he never made a profit on that farm. He'd spend his vacations working on fences or farm equipment. But we had fresh vegetables in season and a hunk of cow in the freezer. More importantly, farming was what he loved, and it showed nearly every day.

For me, finding out what I love has been the hard part. And the busier I stay, the less likely I am to figure it out. When I've been far away from distractions, I've made decisions that impacted me for years afterwards. After teaching school in Africa, I decided to go back to graduate school to study water resources. After a year in the Middle East, I decided to volunteer in developing countries and ended up working on water projects in Haiti. And I'm in the process of another reevaluation. (See my essay on Midlife Crises.) Your lives may change direction as you get older, but more likely you'll just have to face up to what your life has become. Why not take the time now to figure out what you love?