Uncertainty #11: Solitude/Friendship
Vanessa just wants some good, old-fashioned, Romantic solitude, dammit. And a good voice memo or two.
Hello there, follower of Uncertainty. The warm weather has finally arrived, and my bout of seasonal depression has been replaced with my far less seasonal state of high anxiety. But, hey, at least it’s sunny out.
If you’re new to us (and a good number of you are! hi!), here’s the drill… Every other week, instead of an episode, Adaam and I take turns writing this here newsletter. We reflect on the last episode, muse on something or other that’s been rattling uncertainly in our minds, and tease the next episode that will grace your feeds.
In my last newsletter, I talked about the ways I’ve learned (and society has encouraged me) to divorce my body from my mind, which can prevent me from truly knowing myself. In this one, in the wake of our conversation with William Deresiewicz (one of my favorites yet), I’d like to explore a prerequisite condition for knowing: Solitude.
The End of Solitude
Reading Bill’s works in preparation for our interview was a joy in and of itself — he’s a prolific writer who’s covered a true range of diverse, very uncertain-things-y topics, including the shamfoolery of higher education (at the top of the absurd pyramid undoubtedly lies journalism school), the degradation of art in the internet age, the undervaluation of the humanities, and the disappearance of solitude.
In the title essay of his book, The End of Solitude, Bill describes our current world as one where humans have been hijacked by technology. Yes, it’s “taking away our privacy and our concentration,” he writes, but more worryingly it’s “taking away our ability to be by ourselves.” Although we gain by being constantly connected to others, we lose one of our most necessary conditions for a strong intellectual (and dare I say moral) life: solitude.
It’s important here to briefly belabor the somewhat obvious point: solitude is not loneliness. If we’re to believe the many op-eds and studies and indices we read in the media, as well as the anecdotal evidence around us, we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic (see: our conversation with David French and our event with Niall Ferguson). Just as the technology of television produced the phenomenon of boredom, writes Bill, the creation of the internet is a “powerful machine for the production of loneliness.”
He goes on: “Loneliness is not the absence of company; it is grief about that absence.” We have all experienced being achingly lonely in the presence of people — physical or virtual — because there’s no sense of true connection. That company is in name, not spirit. The result, loneliness.
Solitude ≠ Scrolling
Solitude, in contrast, suggests a level of comfort in the company of your own thoughts. It is a kind of aloneness to be sought out and relished. In his essay, Bill points out that the Romantics were huge fans of this kind of solitude, which they saw in “dialectical relationship with friendship.” They were yin and yang, mutually making the experience of each a little sweeter. Today, worries Bill, we’re losing both: true solitude and true friendship.
In my own experience, I’ve been fortunate enough to cultivate enough good friendships that, for me at least, one half of this warning doesn’t ring true. This was a conscious decision on my part: after extricating myself from a long-term, toxic romance in my 20s (where external relationships were deemed suspect), I chose to never de-prioritize friendships again. Indeed, this commitment to friendship is one of the reasons Adaam and I don’t just make this podcast together, but we have also lived together for coming on nine years. So (at least in this pre-baby stage of my life) for true friendship, I don’t lack.
But solitude, I do. I set aside time for work, for friends and family, for music. When I have any downtime, I fill the void with podcasts, scrolling, television. All things accessible with the mere swipe of a finger. Solitude, on the other hand, takes effort. Because I (again, have prioritized friendship and thus) live with friends, attaining solitude means actively getting out of the house and walking to a park or cafe or taking a bike ride. It’s just enough friction that I almost always opt for the empty aloneness of scrolling instead. So much so that the other day I literally had to write these words to myself in my diary.
SOLITUDE IS NOT SCROLLING. IF YOU CHOOSE TO BE ALONE, CHOOSE TO BE WITH YOURSELF.
I’m still working on it.
Ode to the Voice Memo
I was listening to a so-so episode of the Ezra Klein Show the other day, when Ezra said something that piqued my interest. He was getting nostalgic about the time he had an injury that made it difficult for him to text. Out of necessity, he began sending voice memos to his friends. He was surprised to find that he loved the form of communication. This is what it must have felt like sending and receiving letters in the olden days, says Ezra, with I imagine mist in his eyes.
On this score, I agree with Ezra wholeheartedly. Of course, it goes without saying that there’s a special circle of hell for the person who sends a 4-minute voice memo to relay factual information — or worse an urgent query — that really truly should have been a short text. But, when the point is to share how life is going, or mull over a knotty problem, or reflect on a piece of art you’ve recently experienced, there’s no better form than the long-winded, stream-of-consciousness voice memo. (Shout out to our friend Misha, who is a master of the medium.)
For the receiver, a voice memo lets you momentarily immerse yourself in the sender’s psyche. If I haven’t connected with a friend in a long time, a good voice memo makes me feel like no time or space is between us at all — they’re chatting intimately, right beside me. Plus, you get to hear your interlocutor’s voice. I’m biased, obviously, but I love voices. The unique markers in tone, accent, turn of phrase. You’re getting their humanity, the stuff that gets utterly stripped via text.
Indeed, it’s ironic that the word “memo,” as Wikipedia tells me, comes from the Latin “(that) which is to be remembered." For the voice memo is ephemeral. It enters your ear and almost immediately goes into the ether. If you wish to go back to it, to remember that which is to be remembered, you’ll have to either skip through awkwardly or begin the experience anew. There is no easy skimming or extracting. It’s the kind of frustrating friction we need more of these days.
This is a medium tailor made for messy connection, for companionship of spirit, for true friendship.
Now just imagine if we went back to writing letters.
Things Worth Your Time ⏰
🦉I’ve never heard a longform interview with Isabel Allende before, and I walked away from this one (hosted by Julia Louis Dreyfus) confirmed in my suspicion that she’s a badass woman with much wisdom to share.
🥸 Who is the real Elizabeth Holmes? The NYT attempts to be complicated to middling success. It’s still a fun read though.
🕵️ This episode of Switched on Pop is an admittedly cheesy, endearing romp through the recent history of the key change — and why it has “disappeared” from the pop charts.
What We’re Working On ⏭
Adaam’s hard at work editing our episode with the very impressive David Krakauer — an evolutionary biologist and the President of the uniquely inter-disciplinary Santa Fe Institute. For a good introduction to David, check out his appearance on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast.
One Last Certain Thing…
Snug always wins.