#7: The tension between solitude and engagement, reflection and action, the artistic self and the social self

I just had a chat with a friend I deeply trust and respect. I opened up about feeling stuck in a sort of crisis phase, and he said he'd sensed it too.

This friend is an entrepreneur, and he reminded me of something he's said before: you learn about life by living it, not by merely thinking about it. Doing things and figuring things out. Engaging with the world brings you more meaning.

It's an idea that resonates. I'm deeply fascinated by questions surrounding human existence and nature. The more you engage with the world—finding yourself in unique and sometimes messy situations—the more you understand how people operate in reality, thereby deepening your understanding of humanity.

And this lines up with personal experience: I've seen first-hand the inner workings of newspapers and what happens behind the scenes in TV broadcasting. Which provided me a nuanced view of media and journalism that most people lack. So I can apply this perspective to other areas of life as well.

So perhaps, I should actually not be writing this blog, and not think about all these dubious thoughts. I should rather focus on actionable thoughts. And do something.

Maybe these thoughts are in my head because I have too much idle time? Maybe I'll realise there is no point in even having these thoughts? Maybe if I just take more work, and keep myself busy, these thoughts will disappear?

Tempting idea. So more maybes coming.

Maybe I should just go and try write a damn book. Maybe I should just find a good job that aligns with my values and do some kickass work. Maybe I should write some code and get the computer to do cool things which also makes me good money. Maybe I should just do what I have been thinking for a while and build a media startup.

There's so much I could do. Why don't I?

I think I know why. I will try to articulate the other side.

My life over the last two and a half years in Landour—the absolutely amazing hill town—taught me about the art of solitude. I feel so much more connected to my inner self, having learnt to live by myself and listen to my deep inner voice, and realise so much of what society values simply feels chaotic to me and simply does not align with what my values are. I started feeling and understanding artists and their life and their worldview — even though I hesitate to call myself an artist.

And that tells me that some people, like me, gain their deepest understandings and do their best work precisely because they take the time to think, to be alone, to dive deep into their inner world. It's a different way to think about life.

The thing, as always, when thinking about "life" is that you just don't know if you are being delusional or if you have a point. And so, when you come across someone whose words feel like "been there, done that", it's a source of comfort.

In context of the dilemma I am trying to describe in this post, reading Mary Oliver helped. On Maria Popova's excellent site, The Marginalian, I read about Oliver's reflections into the complexities of identity and purpose, particularly as they relate to the creative self.

She distinguishes between three primary selves:

  • One, the childhood self, which forms the basis of our identity.

  • Two, the social self, which is constructed by societal expectations and obligations.

  • Three, the locus of artistic and creative energy.

Oliver asserts that this third self is extraordinary. It is not bound by the routine or ordinary tasks that govern most of society. It resides in a sort of otherworldly awareness.

I like this framing, though I must stress test with more conceptions of defining the self. And I must acknowledge this is feeding my confirmation bias. But for now, let's work through this.

Oliver argues that the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves from that of the creative self is different: it is not meant to sustain the world as it is but to propel it forward, to transcend the ordinary and reach into the realm of the extraordinary. Which demands a different outlook on life, a shift in priorities, and a high level of concentration and energy. (Sounds like me?)

Pasting her exact quote on this:

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

This idea strongly resonates with my current existential questioning and sense of alienation.

Oliver suggests that if you do not feel compelled by this extraordinary creative energy, if you do not feel the loyalty — "creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity" — then you might be better suited for roles that fulfils society's expectations and routines.

The thing to note is — and this bit is important — she is not suggesting that the artistic life is better than a more traditional, non-artistic path. She does not suggest that one negates the other; rather, they are fundamentally different approaches to life that require different sets of commitments and priorities. Because we need pilots who can fly the planes, and we need artists, like Oliver herself.

One of the core tensions here, fo me, is the one between social engagement and solitude. These two forces are naturally at odds with each other, and yet, both seem to matter.

Does the creative self does its best work in solitude, away from societal norms and distractions?

In 1824, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix wrote about exactly this—the conflicting needs for sociality and solitude:

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace.

I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society?

The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotions to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way and thus the impression is weakened for both.

Yes, that's two hundred years ago. And gosh—this resonates deeply with my life. So similar to the oscillation between sociality and solitude in my own life: the experience of hopping from Delhi's society to Landour's solitude. And between valuing conversations but also having conversations with myself, like writing this blog.

Back to Oliver. The Marginalian note on Oliver concludes with this final set of quotes, which essentially tie everything together:

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written.

I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Damn. So much to think about here.

But this perspective does show me the differences in the two approaches to live a life — the artist's way, as Mary Oliver describes, and the non-artist's way, as my friend described.

I am obviously biased to believe Oliver because that just feels true to me. I have felt it. That's what the last few years have been about. I didn't go to the hills to feel this — it just happened, and I experienced it, and now I find it hard to go back. If I have felt the presence of the creative self within me, and I have produced writing I am proud of after feeling this, should I really just leave this? Should I not work towards this more?

I am actually not sure how to test these ideas against each other. I don't even know if I can intellectually figure this out. And I don't even know how to choose.

The only common point is that both ask for a life of commitment, which is also something I am looking forward to.

Why? Because I have this hazy notion that a life lacking commitment is somehow less meaningful. I don't exactly know where it comes from. I suspect it arises from the idea that long-term commitment to anything brings about change in the world and provides a sense of purpose.

Commitment may require sacrificing some freedoms, introducing binding constraints, which is fine, because unbound freedom is disorienting and can lead to chaos. A committed life, in contrast, offers a sense of order, and thus, meaning. And hence, a good life.

The questions remains: what should I commit myself to? Art, or not?

I have to live this tension for now—this tension between solitude and social engagement, between reflection and action, and between the artistic self and the social self.

I pasted all this into ChatGPT and asked for a view — yeah, the bot is my partner in dealing with existential dilemmas. Make of it what you will.

Some ideas that came up in that virtual conversation:

  • One way to think about this is not consider these two mutually exclusive. What if the commitment can be to a life well-considered, a life that involves both action in the world and contemplative retreat from it?

  • What if things I mentioned above — writing a book, starting a media startup, or diving into coding projects —  are not antithetical to a life of solitude and introspection? What if these ventures are the very expressions of the insights I gain during my solitary contemplations? They could be the means through which I engage with the world while still honouring my inner artistic vision.

  • Perhaps action and contemplation both matter and inform each other. So I don't have to think to choose one exclusively.

These are good points to think about. And I guess this is why it is important for me to let these tensions thrive in my head and not rush into resolving them. Because most of the times, when one is in the thick of things, one finds it hard to even articulate these tensions—forget resolving them. And the lack of articulation leads to bypass the underlying conflicts and jump to action. Which has both pros and cons. But for someone like me, who is sensitive to his emotions and inner feelings, unresolved tensions create havoc. So tensions must be surfaced, even if not resolved. That's the whole point.

I will stop here. Need to think more deeply about the idea of self, how we construct identity, and how that shapes meaning. Until next time.

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