For the most part, my first month in Europe has been action-packed and incredibly fun. However, the week I spent in Edinburgh, Scotland was a bit of a low point because, for the first time since my arrival in Europe, I was essentially alone.  My hosts were busy people, and although they were hospitable I ended up spending most of my days wandering around Edinburgh on my own.  At times, travelling alone seemed rather pointless; after all, what is the point of seeing beautiful buildings if I have no one to share my wonder with?  As I reflected on the meaning of travelling alone, I thought about the film Into the Wild.

Most people who have seen Into the Wild remember the scene in which Christopher McCandless writes “Happiness is only real when shared” in the margins of a book right before he dies alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

My favorite thing about Into the Wild is the complex and realistic way it deals with human solitude. It captures the beauty and courage of Christopher’s solitary journey into the wilderness (it’s a true story, by the way), but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that his journey was ultimately hopeless and tragic.

There’s an important distinction here: Christopher’s quest for solitude was hopeless, but that does not mean it was meaningless. In fact, he encountered deep truths about himself and the world throughout his journey to Alaska. It was the destination that killed him, not the journey. Into the Wild‘s message, then, is somewhat paradoxical: It is noble to seek solitude, but tragic to find it.

The point of the film is that the quest for solitude is noble because it leads to meaningful experiences and deeper self knowledge, but the tragedy of achieving solitude is that “happiness is only real when shared.”

My week in Edinburgh was, as I mentioned before, rather solitary. During the eight-ish days I was there, I only spent about ten hours in the company of people I knew. I was lonely at times, but a few days before I left I began to realize that a lot of my loneliness was self-imposed. After four years of constant companionships and growing friendships in Norman, I had forgotten how to be alone and at peace at the same time. Reading an article by David Foster Wallace was a turning point for me:

(It’s a really interesting article, and it’s also pretty short. I recommend reading the whole thing. But here’s an exerpt.)

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

The key here is that sometimes loneliness = self absorption. My unfulfilled desire to see the world conform exactly to my expectations often manifests itself as loneliness. When I am separated from the friendships that keep my ego in check, my stream of consciousness can quickly degenerate into “one of those hellishly intense introspective nightmares,” as Raoul Duke puts it. It is much easier to step outside of my own mental arena and engage with outside reality when I am with friends, but it is just as essential to do so when I’m on my own. Thus, I have taken up the practice of telling myself to get over myself whenever I become too focused on mself.

Ultimately, I think that solitude can be  good in small doses, but it takes hard work for me to maintain a healthy mindset while travelling alone. Happiness can perhaps be meaningful when it isn’t shared, but in my experience it is also much more fleeting. I was very happy to depart for my friend Timo’s house in Altenbach, Germany, after my week in Edinburgh.


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