Of Solitude (or, The Universal Citizen)

By Jin-yeong Yi

During my childhood and adolescence, I would spend time with friends just about every chance I would get, dividing our time together in each other’s homes. When I was a kid, I once threw a tantrum in front of my mother because I couldn’t meet my friends. But at some point, companionship no longer seemed as essential as it once had been. I noticed that I felt a sense of relief once friends had returned to their homes; I then had some peace and quiet and I was free to straighten out my room, and go my own way without any external distractions. And as time went by, I saw my friends less and less, finding that I was acquiring a taste for this stillness, this solitude that allowed me to think, to explore.

I was never one of the popular kids in school. It didn’t help that for years I was a mischievous little bastard who delighted in playing pranks on my classmates and generally just annoying the hell out of them.

Then I found myself hanging out with other misfits, who weren’t total pariahs but were for the most part ignored.

Then I found myself alone. Not completely, as I was still very much a part of society in that I was either in education or in employment. I was a secular atheist instead of a Christian, listened to heavy metal instead of hip hop, and spoke with a somewhat idiosyncratic American accent and style that incorporated a number of distinctly British and even Southern U.S. phrases.

An individual needs other people not only to survive, but also to thrive. That is undeniable. Even as a loner who meets his few remaining friends only a few times a year, I recognize my dependence on others for my needs and wants, whether they be the books I read, the movies I watch, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or the tools I use to write and draw. Were I truly on my own, there would be very, very little I could do, and I wouldn’t last long, unless I were to learn how to survive in the wilderness. True independence is an illusion, as that entails complete self-sufficiency.

But that doesn’t mean that I can’t keep people at arm’s length, that I can’t have my own corner. Being forgetful, I sometimes fancy that I am a loner mainly because there’s something about me that rubs people the wrong way, causing them to shun me. Then I remember that the loneliness has been mostly self-imposed. I have had quite a few opportunities in my life to reach out and strike up friendships. But I chose the silent freedom of solitude, of marching to the beat of my own drum.

It was because I was a loner that I was able to grow and become my own person. It may not be possible to escape the fate of being a product of one’s time, but at least I can say that I managed to rise above stereotypes to no small degree, and separate myself from the herd.

I do not intend the word “herd” in an entirely derogatory sense. A herd of sheep is not inherently “inferior” to a lone wolf–one is simply a collection of individuals that have a place among one another, and the other is simply a single individual that does not quite fit into any group. The two are merely different, and whether one is superior to the other is a question of preference. And I find that I prefer to go my own way. (This is likely why I almost never watch TV. I don’t have much beef with the tube; it’s just that I favor choosing what I want to watch, when I want to watch it.)

I’ve never been in a band, but I think the analogy works well enough. A real band works as a team on the creative process (a band in which only one member is calling all the shots is not really a band but a solo artist with supporting musicians), and this naturally entails disagreements and compromise. A one-man band does not suffer from such drawbacks, and one-man bands like Burzum, Havohej, Ildjarn, and Mütiilation are decisive proof that it is possible to produce albums that are not merely good, but superlative. An individual who chooses to write the music of his life on his own has more control over the range of options that he has. Like the lone artist, he can skip the groupthink and focus on doing what he feels is best for his greatest masterpiece, which is none other than the life he is living one moment at a time.

I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of my relationship with myself during one Christmas morning, when it was time for everyone in the family to exchange presents. It was mostly a disaster because we got each other the wrong gifts–things that were either superfluous, unnecessary, or unwanted. What I realized was the simple truth that no one knew me better than I knew myself. Others could make deductions and get me something I would like, but only I knew what I wanted. Only I knew what I desired in life. And if I didn’t know, no one knew. No one could know.

There is a lonely side to being a loner, of course. At times you might find yourself wishing that others can understand you, and that others will accept you for what you are. You might find yourself wishing that you can share your joys and sorrows with someone who can fully appreciate them.

I think this longing for acceptance and companionship goes hand in hand with something deeper: a longing for a place one can, without any reservations, call home. And what is home? We could use the definition “where the heart is,” but we could also try something more fundamental: the place where one has always belonged and will always belong. Based on this definition, can you, dear reader, say that you have a home on this earth? For my part, I must say that I do not. I was born and raised in America, but I certainly do not think of this place as home, not because I dislike it but because my roots here do not extend past two generations, to say nothing of infinity. Well, then, it would make more sense for me to live in Korea, where all of my known forebears had lived. Needless to say, however, that chunk of land called “Korea” was not always populated by Koreans, and the time will come, whether in 100 years or 10,000 years, when the last Korean leaves this world and the geographic location he once thought of as his eternal home is renamed by its new inhabitants. Whether a country, a house, a car, or a planet, everything is borrowed in this world; nothing is truly for keeps.

In my view, the closest we have to a true home is the universe of the mind, because our minds have always belonged to us and always will until we die. To be a universal citizen is to be a citizen in the universe of your own mind. Nowhere is home in this world, but everywhere is home in the mind.

Which brings me back to the main subject of this post. The only person who is guaranteed to be with you to the end is yourself. There’s nothing wrong with seeking companionship, with surrounding yourself with people. But if you don’t feel compelled to do so, and are somehow content with being alone, well, what’s the problem? Solitude is no sin.

I know you’re out there somewhere, fellow loners. There could well be a fair number of you among my readers, including regular visitors that are so heavily introverted that they don’t even subscribe, let alone speak up, content to lurk. Here’s me waving a friendly hello. Like me, you might be having a fine evening, enjoying your own company, passing the time by reading a good book, watching a good movie, or relaxing with a cold one. And there is nothing wrong with that! Tonight I raise my metaphorical shot glass to you, and wish you many more years of blessed solitude.