Thursday, November 22, 2012

On being a hermit

I have, it must be admitted, slightly hermitic tendencies. I almost wrote “hermetic”, as in sealed off from the outside world, which may sometimes be true as well. But I meant “hermitic”, as in a tendency to be a hermit and withdraw from the world. In the early days of Christianity, hermits were regarded as holy men and women. Many lived alone in caves. Some, such as Simeon Stylites, spent many years living perched on a small platform supported by a pillar. They depended on the faithful to bring them what little food they ate, and paid scant regard for personal hygiene. In eighteenth century England it was quite fashionable to keep a pet hermit somewhere down the bottom of the estate, in the hermitage.  

There are many reasons for withdrawing from the world. This may be for a time of healing or reflection. Many writers become periodically hermitic at crucial stages in the writing process. There are also less constructive withdrawals, when, for example, we are running away from responsibility or seeking to avoid confrontation. The ability to withdraw constructively from society is becoming increasingly difficult. This is due to both technology and the very nature of contemporary society. Technologically, “down time” or “quiet time” is becoming a thing of the past, as we carry our office, our friends and our family with us in a little, rectangular box. Being alone and undisturbed has become, if not physically, at least psychologically, impossible for many people. From the point of view of society, it will not tolerate withdrawal: we are irrevocably responsible to and dependent on society. Even the “ferals” – this may be an exclusively Australian designation for people who try to drop out of society and live an alternative lifestyle – draw unemployment benefits.

Time and time again in my thinking about the modern world I encounter the perhaps ill-defined concept of stress. When crowded together, most animals become stressed. Either physically, or in less tangible ways, we are always jostling for space and position, elbowing others out of the way, trampling others, or being trampled. Space and time are rare and extremely valuable “commodities”. We need time and space, our own time and space, to maintain our physical and psychological well being. Without it, the result is what we have today: a society full of people who are always on the verge of exploding, whether that be in the form of road rage, supermarket rage or Columbine/Utøya massacres.

I admit that my own hermitic tendencies are not always healthy. Nevertheless, it would probably benefit each of us individually and society as a whole if we were to make "time out" and "space out" an integral part of our lives. Turn off that phone and leave it off all day, for perhaps one day every month.


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  1. Perhaps it also benefits those of who are disposed to be eremitic to actually make sure we get out into the world as well

  2. Yes, I'm sure it works both ways, and I as an individual "hermit" have to occasionally make the effort to move into society. I feel, however, that the inability to withdraw is a larger issue at the present time.

  3. Yes, I feel that as a society we have lost the ability to be able to turn off, withdraw and be content with our own company, and this constant being-busy is very wearing and is the main instigator of modern stress and depression. But withdrawal also has the its inherent problems,which can engender similar results because "no one man is an island unto himself"... I guess, as always, it is a case of finding balance which is challenging to us humans