Fenton Johnson publishes At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life
April 25, 2020

Solitude as a Survival Strategy

by Fenton Johnson
Fenton is an award-winning author of fiction and literary nonfiction and has recently published his seventh book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life

In this time of enforced social distancing, I consider how LGBTQ+ seniors have so much to teach about solitude, since when we were coming of age, our existence was acknowledged only in the most fearful ways. We learned the lessons of solitude—its trials, but also its rewards—as a survival strategy.

I think of those who are suffering—not just those who have contracted COVID but from the lockdown. I know someone whose 100 year old mother died in a hospital of old age; he was not allowed to see her. My best gay friend is dying of pancreatic cancer. I am not permitted to visit or help. I know people whose retirement savings have shrunk by half. I know students, the first from their families to attend university, for whom there will be no graduation…

Let us be kind to each other for a long while. Wave to your neighbor. Drive more gently. Greet everyone cheerfully—COVID doesn’t migrate on a smile. Might we use this quiet time not to binge watch HBOnbut to turn inward and ask: What kind of species, nation, state, city and countryside do we want? Because each of those categories ultimately depends on our individual engagement with ourselves in solitude. What kind of persons do we want to be and how do we go about cultivating that?

Imagine something you will do, once we are liberated, that has a higher aim than staying busy. Imagine a life of service to your fellow creatures. For this is what my years living alone have taught me: Imagination thrives in solitude.

Beware those cheery messages you read in the media. Solitude is hard. For those not used to it, solitude is harder. But the reward is commensurate with the effort invested. Sit down, shut up, still yourself to the silence of what is. Then go out and help a stranger.