When one of my two sons was in the second grade, I took a call from his fine teacher, who in routine discussion told me that he was doing quite well, but that he was “quiet,” and she wished he were more outgoing in class. I did not respond, having heard the same story in own earlier life, and, no doubt, my father in his. We three, as well as my other son, are very different from one another but in one regard -- a craving for solitude -- we are one. And quite proud of that.
There are drummers for all people, and we each hear the sounds according to disposition, place, time, circumstances, need. Both my sons have gone on to very good careers, with much responsibility, to marriage, their own children (five in all). They are who they are -- principled citizens and humanitarians -- not because they raised their hands often in class, though that is fine and necessary for many individuals (and society needs both vocal and not-so-vocal joiners), but because they often found magnificence in solitude. They continue to grow in that non-limiting space.
Solitude -- not being alone -- but venturing off to that realm where thinkers go, where, Tom Edison, accused of day-dreaming in school, ignored such criticism and went as an adult every afternoon of his long life, just before his nap. Imagine Edison without solitude? No light for the rest of us, literally.
Consider Edward Hopper, America’s foremost realist painter, now so popular worldwide. Though his iconic oils and watercolors capture this nation’s solitude and the great possibilities within, Hopper’s acclaimed work was once labeled by critics as a look at loneliness. Not so. Hopper rejected that view as much “overdone,” and those who study his art today instead see endurance, quiet, introspection and the great independence that has long typified the ever-frontier spirit of America. I recently asked a Belgian woman why Hopper is so very popular in Europe, indeed why she paints beautiful “Hopperesque” scenes, and she said one word: “American.”
Each nation has its particular character, its attributes, its failings, and, most of all, its overall look after a mix of individuals is averaged. Some foreign movies peg the United States as a land of noisy, pushy, loud, spoiled people living high on the hog, and my Belgian friend could accept that stereotype but is also reflective enough to know that America offers other themes as well, including caring, generosity, patriotism.
Yet as Americans might see the French as romantic or the Germans as industrious or Asians as hard workers, etc., I think others in the world view a vast America and in that big space many individuals in solitude, on a porch, looking at the hills and the sea, lost in thought. Even in the magnificence of it.