For some weeks, the little female cardinal had flown about the eave feeders with great familiarity, but one day it flew violently against a window pane and died. The neck was broken instantly from the terrible thud. A moment before so vibrant and attentive: sleek gray wings streaked with red, bright clean beak of orange-yellow, clever darting eyes sensing everything — now all stilled. In death one could hold the little bird as one could not in life. Its tiny eyes were closed, its wings pulled close, legs dangling, warmth still glowing like fading embers in a hearth. We buried it where a fellow bird had struck a pane sometime ago (now the panes have spider web decals), buried next to a single daisy that blooms as it will throughout the seasons, sometimes in two flowers. Returning to the house a cardinal chirped and fluttered, perhaps looking for its mate, its friend, its sister. May it be solaced, and may it sing the dawn and dusk, saluting the short and beautiful life that is the fate of all of us.
Not just cynical and worldly people but average people conforming to society’s conventions shake their heads at the idea of eremitism. Both sets of people will argue that “experiencing the world” is the only normal course, living fully or living purposefully, as the case may be. Their argument is based on experiencing power in one form or another, whether on a throne or in a household, whether exercising it or accepting it as normal. The hermit may well have experienced the world, too, but has one experience that the powerful and the conventional do not: rejecting power, rejecting the necessity of “experiencing the world.” The hermit can and does experience the world as “not this, not that:” no particular form of empowerment but a going past the illusions of power and society, of impermanence and futility. The hermit (and the archetype “hermit” is within all of us) can recognize and experience an independence as well as an interdependence that relies on no one “thing.” No particular demand or emotion or experience. No demand for power. The hermit knows that to reach this point is a solitary journey. And no amount of worldly power or conventional experiences will get one there.
Throughout history, note David Weeks and Jamie James, authors of Eccentrics: a Study of Sanity and Strangeness, reclusive women have been labeled agoraphobic, but the authors’ survey of contemporaries suggests withdrawal from society as a choice not a phobia. Reclusive women pointed out to the authors that a double standard prevails, wherein reclusiveness is more socially acceptable of men than of women. One woman — an artist — remarked:
People think that just because I’m a woman, I must be caring, nurturing, and “people-oriented.” They just can’t believe that I prefer my own company. They don’t realize that my happiest times are when I’m alone with my painting and music. … I don’t think that male artists are quizzed so much about their social lives. People respect their need for solitude. When a male artist says he wants to shut himself off and create, they say he’s serious about his work. When I do it, I’m either being selfish or I have a psychological problem.
How should we “teach” others? How to tell others what to do or what they ought to think or know? Solitaries are in the unique position of immediately recognizing the false premise: that what is essential can be socialized into the mind and heart. Solitaries have learned on their own what could not have been taught, only experienced. To achieve that understanding requires re-creating in oneself a disposition or feeling or sensitivity that cannot be taught. Experience brings insight: meditation, an experience of nature, selfless prayer, shared example, words of conviction or compassion heard or read, a sense of well-being, mutual comfort, egolessness, love. And the knowledge brought by insight can only be conveyed without authority or coercion. Coercion becomes irrelevant in solitude. Coercion is a tool only for social settings, and a futile one at that. Solitude diffuses a person’s urgency to teach others, coerce others, force others to do what is “right” or to do anything for which they are not ready. This is not using proverbial honey instead of vinegar. This is using silence and compassion instead of speech and empty gestures.
You know the old saying: “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone”? I can attest to the first part because I have a “laughing” chair. Well, admittedly it does not laugh. Rather, the chair is made of wood and fastened by screws that inevitably loosen and so the chair squeaks loudly with the occupant’s every move. If I cough or sneeze, so does the chair, and if I laugh continuously, the chair does too. I cannot attest to whether it cries or not. I have not cried in that chair, and I don’t know that I would like to prove the second half of the saying. Besides, it is better for both of us to just laugh.