“Learn to be alone, if only so as to be worthy of true friendship,” Simone Weil writes in her journal, admonishing herself for longing for a friendship with “X.” Leaning on Plato’s allegory of the cave, she tells us that X is in the shadows of the cave, and that she herself is trying to get out of the cave; she is attempting an unevenly yoked friendship. But mostly, she reprimands herself for using friendship as a way to escape her own loneliness. In the same journal entry, she writes that she has, “never been alone since [she was] 16, except for one year,” and for this reason, she does not deserve friendship.1 Then she crosses out the whole reflection.
Reading the crossed-out words of a thinker feels like trespassing. Does this mean she disagreed with her own conclusions? That seems rather unlikely, as the themes of solitude in friendship are carried out later in the notebooks and in her essays. Are they too private, holding a pain or secret that she wanted to keep hidden? Perhaps. Toril Moi characterized Weil’s life as a lonely one, where she wanted to “merge with the masses… [but] found solidarity hard to come by. Everywhere she went, she stood out.”2 Weil’s one year of aloneness could have been a self-imposed lesson in asceticism, or a suffering forced by sickness and circumstances. “Learn to be alone,” she tells herself, and we don’t know if it was a desperate whisper in the darkness, or the faithful practice of a mystic. Our trespassing on this crossed-out passage means we can only speculate.
Being alone, in and of itself, is a shifty, speculative thing. We can dress it up as a spiritual activity and call it solitude. Deprive it of free choice and it is loneliness. Mix in some angst about one’s finitude, and it becomes existential. See it through the lens of a global pandemic and it is being #alonetogether. Being alone can be dangerous or safe, anxiety or peace, left behind or leaving, escaping or facing for the first time. Ever the angst-ridden solitary, Blaise Pascal condemns humanity for their inability to sit quietly in a room and cites a damning list of diversions that keep us from such quietude. Steady jobs, gambling, court cases, and wars, he argues, all come about because “the pleasures of solitude are incomprehensible,” and thus undesirable.3 Being alone is tied up with economies, souls, bodies, and, as Weil’s opening words reveal, even friendships.
As I think about Weil and all the others that have been captured by what it means to be alone, I wonder how one speaks truly about such a speculative thing. How do they make sense of everything one can love and hate about being alone? I do dearly love the way creativity and intuition and meaning bubble up in the stretching hours of being alone. I love the way my mind slows and with it my soul, the way I find words for phenomena that long alluded me. But before I romanticize it too much, other memories crowd in – of tense double, triple checking locks because of strange noises, of oppressive silence, of the unsolvable anxiety of loneliness. They remind me that being alone is unreliable, quick to turn on you if you aren’t careful. “Learn to be alone,” Weil tells us, as if being alone were somehow a certain, stable thing. As if being alone were always an admirable thing.
If aloneness is a tricky thing, so too is friendship. Weil returns to these twinned themes later in her journals, writing that, “to want to escape from being lonely is cowardice” for friendship cannot cure loneliness but ought to “double its joys.”4 For Weil, friendship requires distance to keep it from falling into the temptation of necessity that loneliness highlights. She equates two friends to parallel lines: they are in relationship with one another but always distinct, separated by distance. The “miracle” of friendship is a kind of attention to this distance: a friend consents to view the other “from a certain distance, without coming any nearer.”5 A picture of such friendship is found in the persons of the Trinity, for between them is both a distance and an attentive love.6 Only in the persons of God does the distance of friendship at last reach a kind of meeting; after all, “the point at which parallels meet in is infinity.”7 Weil demands that we shatter the dream of friendship, for friendship is too holy, too real, to simply be a dream; it is a virtue, an exercise, cultivated by the practice of being alone.
Annie Dillard in her short novel The Maytrees, provides a description of being alone that against all odds leads to such friendship. Lou Maytree, in her late fifties, separated from her husband who had settled in with another woman, finds herself, not unlike Weil, alone for the first time in many, many years. In solitude, she builds a life on her own schedule, with meals served on her own internal clock, and a home with things each in their own place. She learns to be alone. And then Toby Maytree, her ex-husband comes calling, not for rekindling a marriage but for help; his second wife is dying, and he can’t take care of her alone. (Two more forms of being alone: dying and taking care of the dying.) So, Lou “bade her solitude good-bye,” a feat in and of itself. But then Dillard adds, “But what was solitude for if not to foster decency? Her solitude always held open house.”8 This is learning to be alone: holding open house. An incubator for decency, it is the practice of being in relationship with the shifting unknown.
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, a close contemporary of Weil, writes that for the solitary, “the door to the outside must… be at the same time open and closed.”9 Being alone can close a door to create a stillness and peace that makes one more attentive. But it also leaves the door open for the anxiety and doubt we attempt to escape through our many diversions. The outside is the landscape of the other, where ex-husbands ask for help, where even friends can sometimes act like enemies. When I hold the door open to the outside, I welcome in the friend as other, as not mine, as beyond my objective gaze. When I hold the door open to the outside, I claim responsibility of what I must do for another, and not just who I should be.
Perhaps, then, being alone and being a friend are not all that different from one another. Just like aloneness twists and changes, refusing to be controlled or commandeered, a friend, another human being, too can twist and change and ought not to be controlled or commandeered. Just like being alone can reveal too much of the angst and panic lying under the surface of our distractions, friendship too reveals too much, exposing failure and hurt. And just like being alone requires the discipline of sitting silently in a room, undistracted and undeterred, friendship too requires discipline, the practice of full and faithful attention to the separating distance.
And yet, just like being alone teaches us to be worthy of friendship, friendship teaches us about being worthy of aloneness, reminding us that it too holds hints of Trinitarian good news. Like friendship, being alone is an emptying as well as an affirmation, a sacrifice to the God of full presence rather than the idol of productivity. It is the freedom to say, “I do not need you, but I choose you.” Holding the door open, even when it closes again. It holds hints of brave resistance, this exercise of virtue, and ought not to be undergone haphazardly.
So, perhaps, we ought to take Weil at her (crossed out) word. Our lives are both open and closed, separation and meeting, and by learning to be alone, we may yet become worthy of friendship. But, in becoming worthy of friendship, may we also be worthy of befriending our aloneness, for distance is a kind of love too.
- All quotations in paragraph taken from Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks, trans. Richard Rees (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 12.
- Toril Moi, “I came with a sword,” London Review of Books 43, no.13 (2021). https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n13/toril-moi/i-came-with-a-sword.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1995), 37-8.
- Weil, First and Last Notebooks, 43.
- Simone Weil, “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,” in Waiting for God, trans. Emma Crauford (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 135.
- Ibid., 137.
- Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (Harper Collins E-book, 2007), 141.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburg, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 148.