8 months ago

How I Learned To Be Alone


Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge was the first man in history to reach all of the Earth’s poles by foot – the North, the South and the summit of Everest. In his book, Philosophy for Polar Explorers, (Penguin), he brings together wisdom from these expeditions that have taken him to the limits of the earth and the end of human endurance. Here he ponders loneliness.

“I’ve felt much more lonely in large gatherings of people and in crowded towns than I did on my way to the South Pole. Far out on the ice, 1,000 kilometres from the rest of humanity, I hardly ever missed the company of others. Now and again I missed skin-to-skin contact, but seldom more than that. I had enough in myself, my experience of nature, the rhythm and forward progression of putting one leg in front of the other a sufficient number of times. When I was alone in New York for the first time, in the summer of 1986, penniless and knowing no one, my sense of loneliness was oppressive.

Having people crowding round can remind you just how lonely you actually are. On the way to the South Pole I had no contact with the world about me and perhaps for that reason I missed human contact less.

It was a great relief that I couldn’t communicate with anyone by radio or phone. To have had such contact would have resulted in some part of my consciousness never having left Norway, and I’d have missed out on a great deal of what the journey alone had to offer me.

“I’ve felt much more lonely in
large gatherings of people
and in crowded towns than I did
on my way to the South Pole.

I was reminded of the importance of being at the centre of my own life in the course of that journey. Of not living my life through others. Past and future merged into one another and became definitions of little meaning. There was only the present. No TV series, no adverts, no news, no celebrity gossip, no one else to consider. Just enormous white expanses all the way to the horizon. Sun and blue sky twenty-four hours a day (well, almost). A life such as that gives an enormous sense of freedom. The freedom to be alone, and the freedom to follow a dream.

Loneliness is of course not an asset in and of itself. It often feels like a burden, but it also has potential. Everyone is lonely – some more than others – but no one escapes it,” writes the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen in his book The Philosophy of Loneliness. Many religions and philosophical systems across the ages have emphasised that loneliness can be something positive, but today many people perceive it as something intrinsically negative. For me it’s all about how I respond to the situation of being alone, whether I’m able to harness loneliness in a good way or whether I just become restless or a little frantic.

Often I find that I’m restless for the first hours and days of a period of being by myself, but usually – if I can stay the course and not allow myself to be tempted into seeking out company or distracting myself by thinking about the past or future – a sense of calm settles over me after a time. Then I can start to enjoy being alone. That experience of loneliness is very close to what is sometimes termed “solitude”.”


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