I stumbled onto an article today and thought it was a rather fascinating idea, one I think I would love to take part in if given half the chance at some point. The article covered a wager made by a professional gambler, that he could survive in near complete isolation, in the dark, for 30 days – if he did it, he would get $100,000. Now, that’s a wager I think I could do standing on my head.
But, let’s dig into this with a little more detail, because I wonder, as someone who has sought a high level of solitude in my own life, is isolation really negative to the human being? This is part of my ongoing series on Science Talk.
So, let’s dive in.
In November 2018, Rich Alati, a professional poker player, bet $100,000 that he could survive alone in a small room, in the dark, for 30 days. During his time inside, he had a small bed, a small fridge, a bathroom and that was it.
He was plunged into total darkness.
Now, they say that isolation plays havoc on the human psyche. Those locked up in prison often suffer from psychological issues after long periods in isolation, war-time captives have also expressed psychological effects from prolonged periods of isolation. Kidnapped victims, many who suffer through years of isolation in horrible conditions, experience such mental trauma, they begin to associate and sympathize with their captors.
So, it made me immediately question, is isolation in and of itself negative to the human being? On the other hand, could it be possible there are certain individuals that can not only survive but thrive in an environment devoid of other human involvement?
Let me give you a spoiler, Rich, the professional gambler, did not actually make it the entire 30 days locked up by himself. In fact, he only made it 20 days and tapped out, keeping $62,000 of his wagered prize money.
But, despite his failure, the questions still remain.
My Own Attempts at Isolation
If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you know I am an introvert, aspiring hermit, and all around misanthrope. I actually have found, over the years, that less contact with other people makes me a happier and more well-rounded person.
I have made several attempts over the course of my life to isolate myself, all having varying degrees of success or failure, depending on your perspective.
Most of my social contact now remains with co-workers and with immediate family. I no longer have a spouse, no children, no friends or acquaintances. I do not go out with people, and I do not receive visitors. Lately, on the rare occasion when I’m invited over to a co-worker’s house for dinner, I simply (but bluntly) state that I do not socialize outside of work. It’s often hard for people to take, and I’m usually proffered the advice that there’s medication for that, but, it usually ends the awkward encounter for good, rather than it lingering on and both of us suffering for it.
My home is an unofficial hermitage. The Eden Property was to be my paradise in which I would make the final jump into complete (or almost complete) isolation.
I have found I am my most creative, most relaxed, most authentic self when not around others, when not interacting with them.
I certainly have no compulsion that others do – seeking out relationships (even hurtful ones) so that I could connect with someone – anyone – rather than being alone.
Alone is quite okay in my book.
Negative Aspects of a Solitary Lifestyle
I hear it from others all the time. I read about it. I watch it on TV Shows and in Movies. Someone who isolates themselves must be depressed or psychologically damaged in some way.
It is healthy to seek out connection with other people, to fit in, to find a tribe or group where you belong.
People go so far as to jump from empty relationship to empty relationship, seeking to satisfy the often elusive need to love and be loved – to belong.
I thought, at one time in my life, this is what I wanted, too. I wanted a wife, to have children. But, I found reality to be much more solemn, much more brutally raw – risky.
Some would say that those desires I once had were seared from my psyche from the intense pain I experienced by my divorce. But, I would say, that experience was just the tip of the ice berg. It was the frosting on a cake that was being build by everyone I interacted with through the course of my life.
I knew, deep down inside, and from a very young age, I wanted to be alone. I enjoyed being by myself. But, I think society kept pushing me toward connection, reinforcing that something was wrong with me, wanting to go off into the woods to be alone all the time.
So, I attempted to fill a need I thought I should have, playing the good actor on the stage.
It was not until my divorce and the aftermath that followed, that I made the promise to myself – I was going to be as authentic to myself as I possibly could. I was no longer going to live the life that family, friends, or society wanted me to live. Told me I should be living.
I was going to live the life I was born to live. And, I have to say, it’s been the best set of years so far.
The Benefits of a Solitary Lifestyle
So, what can someone get from living without the common social connections prevalent in our societies? Personally, I believe a great deal.
There are certain vocations (or avocations) that tend to thrive in the absence of social and familial ties that bind us to each other. Monasticism (though this particular manifestation of faith is slowly withering on the vine and may one day die out entirely) has always blossomed on isolation, on solitude, on attention focused inwardly.
The famous hermits of the fourth century in Egypt marked the religious landscape forever with their specific brand of Christianity – with isolation and prayer and extreme asceticism.
Creative types have likewise long been associated with withdrawing from societal norms in order to tap into the vein of energy they needed to give birth to their creations and masterpieces. Whether that be a painting, a sketch, a piece of music, or a poem, play, or novel, those on the edge of origination and iteration tend to long for quiet, desolate places where they are more in tune with not only the natural world around them, but also the metaphysical one.
Scientists also tend to be the isolating types, driven insatiably by their questions and their hypotheses. It has become cliche, the scientist or academic that holes him or herself up in among the stacks for days at a time, pouring over the cumulative knowledge of mankind, in search of understanding and relevance.
In the end, those who seek out the desolate places in this world, do so because they are on a journey. The greatest aspect of this, is it is most often a solitary journey, in which there is little need for external affirmation or assimilation.
There is something to be said for deprivation, due to long-term isolation against a person’s will. But, for those who willingly seek out the solitary life with a particular aim and purpose, bedrocked on a firm foundation of mental and emotional acuity, I think great doors may very well open to that individual. Planes beyond that which we can normally hear and see and touch.
There can also be a great safety in the subtraction of social cues, as relationships and interpersonal connection is often (one could argue always) fraught with misaligned and ingenuous self-wills, always competing with each other for the upper hand. This is not a state in which one can honestly rest assured, knowing at any moment, if the other ceases to receive what they desire or need, they may simply abandon the relationship without warning or regard for the other.
Isolation, like most things, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. What truly matters is context, application, and individual traits, callings, and dispositions.
Try telling the hermit to shave his scraggly beard, don a suit, and take up residence in a high rise building in Manhattan. You will indeed receive sharp criticism from him, just before he slips off into the woods, and, like a phantom, disappears.
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