Saturday, May 16, 2009


With our ever expanding social networking and instant communication I wonder if we have outgrown a central fact of generations past or dangerously forgotten it. In the instant societies we create by computer and the way the cell phone keeps every friend and acquaintance and even emergency help no farther than a few seconds away from our needs. Twenty years ago I went to the Siberian arctic to write about an expedition of radio amateurs who were the first to be allowed to broadcast from that officially closed part of the world. It was part of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the joint broadcasts from five American and twelve Soviet radio operators were a kind of announcement to the world that people were coming together again. Today coming together is much much easier (at least if one does not live in North Korea or Cuba or Iran—and one can even meet strangers in these last two by internet or short wave radio if the proper restrictions are observed).

Back to the question-- have we outgrown a central fact of all human history or dangerously forgotten it? I don’t know the answer, but I know a few poems that pose the question. Here’s one.


He knew how Roman legions looked, for he
Had seen the Maine coast fogs march in from sea
For many years now, in August days.
They came in mighty columns up the bays,
Tawny and gray and silver in the sun;
They trampled out the seaports one by one,
The islands and the woods, with their high hosts
And pushed the world back inland from the coasts.

This little house was lost, these hills and dells,
Cows in a pasture faded into bells,
The world around a man closed in and in
Till nowhere was ten paces from his chin.
A man drawn up and halted with a start
To be so close to his own beating heart
And left so to himself and wholly blind
To everything but what was in his mind.

This was the peril and the comfort, too,
A man who lived in such a region knew;
On any Summer’s day, within an hour,
He might be blind and naked to a power
So vast, it might have come from stars unmade,
Undreamt of, even, making him afraid,
So mightier than the night that he could guess
How life was but a name for loneliness.

(Robert P. Tristram Coffin)


  1. The kind of loneliness one feels in a Maine pea-soup fog is cousin to awe. I'm not sure it's the same impulse that prompts people to connect through their cell phones. Is it worth exploring whether there's a useful difference between loneliness and solitude?

  2. I'll answer with a question: do we seek loneliness? I'd say only out of unfortunate perversity. Odes have been written to solitude, however. Then again,one can be lonely in solitude. And thus confused, your unconfused question leads me to wonder if one needs solitude to ponder this question or society, or both?