2022 — The delight of solitariness

Helen De Cruz
6 min readDec 29, 2022
The Monk by the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich

Well, 2022 was interesting. It’s late in the evening, almost new year, and since this blog only has a small audience I do not feel bad oversharing how I feel. Professionally, 2022 went very well. I co-wrote a bunch of papers including a few close to my heart, such as the one on Indigenous philosophy. I completed a monograph. I edited and co-edited two volumes: Avatar the Last Airbender and Philosophy, and my Philosophy Illustrated edited and illustrated volume finally came through in January 2022, after being delayed by the supply chain issues.

Speaking of which, we’ve come a long way. From the great toilet paper scarcity and panic in early 2020, to the hopeful vaccine rollout in early 2021, to the omicron wave in early 2022. My first in-person talk, to be delivered in the Ethical Society Saint Louis was delayed because of the enormous wave of sickness and death that, once more, swept the world. In spite of all the misinformation and the culture wars, I still felt a kind of togetherness as we were trying to battle this formidable invisible foe.

Now, it feels we’re in a very different place; it also feels very lonely. I still mask up. Only one of my students did this consistently in my fall undergrad class of 35 people. None of my grad students did. None of my colleagues do. I have only dined in a couple of times. I got covid in spring, like almost everyone I know (having two kids in school will do that). At the time, as I was shaking all over and coughing, and lost my sense of smell and taste completely, I knew it even before I did the lateral self-test. I felt a strange, twisted sense of relief that it finally got me. I got quite sick (which is now called “mild,” of course, because I didn’t go to hospital), and at the end of semester it was inconveniently timed. I soldiered on, spent two weeks in bed, and took several months more recuperating. Now, I feel totally fine again and really in no hurry to get it again.

But most people around me have given up. A recent NYT article calls people like me the “last holdouts,” and so it feels awfully lonely. I am not consistent in my mitigating efforts, either. I’ve started to attend conferences again and given several talks (and also went to film in a studio in New York City for a documentary for PBS, though the film industry has excellent covid protocols, including testing all cast and crew twice a week so it felt very safe).

While doing further covid mitigations on your own while others are back to living their best life feels lonely, solitude does not feel nearly as lonely.

In fact, I felt that one of the unexpected enduring effects of this pandemic has been for me to revalue solitude. As a child I had learned solitude, I was an outcast at school wearing second hand clothing but I didn’t care what others think of me, I just went about my business drawing, thinking and reading. But now that I have some measure of success i unlearned that attitude, trying to live up to social expectations.

As Anca Gheaus writes in this wonderful paper on the topic, solitude is not the same as loneliness. Loneliness is the sense of a longing for emotional connection which goes unfulfilled. It can happen even in the presence of others. Solitude, on the other hand, is a state favored by poets and lyricists. It’s a state where, in David Velleman’s terms you are keeping yourself company.

Or, in Anca Gheaus view, solitude is a state of contentment where you do not feel the lack of emotional connection. You don’t even have to be aware of yourself, it’s possible to completely lose your sense of self as you enter a flow state of absorption. That solitude is important for creativity, for rediscovering the self, for engrossing yourself in a topic.

O Solitude, by Katherine Philips, set to music by Henry Purcell.

Katherine Philips, a famous 17th-century poet, describes this feeling of solitude set on the unforgettable music by Henry Purcell. She calls solitude her “sweetest choice”, she describes the sublime views of nature such as mountains which began to be valued at this point–the beauty along with the sublimity of nature. I put a version here I deem very beautiful, though it is unconventional and not played on a historical instrument but on a modern classical guitar. The basso ostinato brings it together.

We can think of other early modern music celebrating solitude, such a John Dowland’s Sweet Woods, which celebrates the “hermit’s life” of the singer (I put a lockdown version because it is not only very beautiful, but also appropriate for the theme.)

O sweet woods (Dowland) by Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano) and Jacob Heringman (lute)

I have a partner and children and spend a lot of time in my home, so we have devised personal space to allow for solitude. As these few years has gone on, I have valued solitude more and more as it allows me to get deeply engrossed into things that interest me. But at the same time, how to describe it, I have felt less social pressure and more freedom and something close to the Buddhist anatman, a diminished sense of what my self even is.

This has been so transformative I even decided (for the time being) to not attend church anymore. I have always deeply valued church and the ELCA church nearby here is lovely. The pastor is a wonderful, progressive erudite person and the people are very nice. But one Sunday, I got up and I felt that I could not do it anymore. I still have a kind of background feeling that Reformed people describe as “sensus divinitatis” (if in fact it is that, is not a trick of a purely physical brain, and the right externalist conditions hold). But I could not do it, the social interactions felt always a bit forced and burdensome–I feel a bit out of place in an otherwise all-white congregation, and then there was the Supreme Court ruling and the steady barrage of “Christian” bigotry in the media.

And yes, I know that conservative Christians have a disproportionate platform and they sideline more moderate voices, but my personal sense of dissonance had become so great that deciding to not attend, at least for a while, felt liberating.

My new year’s resolution is freedom.

I don’t care if I’m one of the last holdouts, or whether I’m doing life right or wrong in a pandemic, or what people think about it. I don’t want to second-guess my choices through the lenses other people hold up.

Until recently, I have lived (sort of) like a Confucian, trying to cultivate myself with the virtues I want to have, trying to live up to the enormous and undeserved luck of having a permanent position in academia (and a luxury position at that), to at least try to be worthy of the position. As Müller and D’Ambrosio write in their great book on Zhuangzi and authenticity, the problem is that such a process of self-authentication eventually where you try to live up to some role until you reach a point of sincere commitment sets an impossible bar.

With yourself as company, you can at least temporally rid yourself of the social images others have of you and permit yourself to lose yourself, and that is the ultimate freedom. An unexpected Buddhist/Daoist message for this new year. I have no idea what it will bring, I wish you many good things and good health.