Living in Isolation: An Experiment

July 10, 2016

When I was in Georgia (the country, not the state!), I saw this interesting feature of an old house that was open to visitors.

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I learned from the tour guide that this used to be the home of a hermit who shut himself up in that little attic and had food delivered to him in that basket. My first thought upon hearing this was “I want one of those!”

What I’m going to share now is something I’ve told very few people about, simply because it seems rather unusual and I don’t think most people would understand it. But then again I’ve always been surprised by how many people have seemed to identify with things I’ve written on this blog that I thought were unusual, so I’m going to venture to write about this too.

You see, for a long time now I’ve had this desire somewhere within me: The desire to be alone. I mean really, completely alone. To shut myself up somewhere, preferably in an idyllic little cabin or some other place surrounded by a vast expanse of nature, with a supply of food to last a month or two, not seeing or speaking to a soul, but just dedicating myself completely to my own personal pursuits. I could do so much, I thought. I could learn so much. I envisioned myself reading mountains of books and absorbing all their knowledge, finally starting to exercise and get myself in shape (something I’ve never been good about I’m afraid), writing so many songs and painting so many pictures, and just thinking– drinking in the delicious silence and thinking, with nothing and no one to interrupt me. I was sure that such an experience would lead to some sort of eureka moment, some sort of breakthrough that would change my life, and that it would ultimately make me into a stronger person better able to interact with the world.

Practically speaking, though, there are a lot of difficulties in making something like that happen. First it would require finding such an isolated place, and getting myself there. It would require getting food that would last for a long time and somehow getting it to that isolated place (or maybe setting up one of those nifty delivery baskets). And to really go for it, I would probably have to cut myself off from the Internet, which would mean no source of income and no communication with friends or family, some of whom I suspect might find the whole thing hard to understand and accept.

The fact is, it’s something I’m simply not able to do right now and probably won’t be able to do for a while. But I felt so drawn to the idea that I just had to try it, or at least some form of it. This is the main reason I decided to leave Georgia early. I was surrounded by a lot of people in Georgia, and although they were absolutely lovely people who I really enjoyed spending time with (and I felt kind of bad about leaving because my wonderful housemates there, who had been so good to me, seemed genuinely sad to see me go), I simply had to get myself alone. I can’t really explain why I had this impulse, but I followed it.

I came to Montreal, Canada because I’ll be participating in the North American Polyglot Symposium (NAPS) here later this month, so I figured since I have to be here anyway, why not? I honestly didn’t care where I was, as long as I could be alone. And besides, I found a cheap plane ticket.

I booked a place to stay through Airbnb, thinking it was in Montreal, but when I arrived I discovered the place actually wasn’t in Montreal itself, but in a sleepy residential suburb about an hour’s travel away from anything interesting. No, I really had no idea until I got here, and yes, I know I’m incredibly ditzy for an otherwise intelligent person. Shut up, it’s charming. (Note to directionally challenged self: Next time you book a place to stay in an unfamiliar area, look at a goddamned map.)

But anyway… I figured, all the better for my ambitions of solitude. I would be living in a house with other people (darned budget constraints), but I would have a private room and wouldn’t really have to talk to anyone.

So I came to Montreal (I mean, sort of), but I didn’t bother to see Montreal. I didn’t buy any guidebooks or take any bus tours. I didn’t go to any of the many events happening in the city. I didn’t seek out any opportunities to use my somewhat rusty French. For the first two weeks, I didn’t go any farther than the nearest grocery store. As much as I could, I simply stayed in my room.

I didn’t cut myself off from the Internet, since I needed it for work and I was just too reliant on it for information. I also wasn’t exactly in a pristine natural location and I couldn’t avoid talking to someone every once in a while, so at best I was only a “semi-hermit”. But I thought that would be enough to at least get a hint of whether or not I was onto something with this idea.

Much to my dismay, however, it turned out that being a semi-hermit wasn’t fun at all, and I wasn’t very good at it. Being a rather introverted person, I had thought isolation would come naturally to me and that I would thrive in it. But I didn’t– I struggled with every minute of it. The overwhelming desire I had once felt to learn absolutely everything there was to learn in the world, to stuff my brain full of information until I couldn’t fit anymore, was suddenly extinguished. Now that I finally had the time and the freedom to do all the things I had wanted so badly to do, I didn’t want to do them anymore. The only thing I can really say for myself is that I didn’t have any problem getting my work done, and that at least went quite well. But it went so well that I often only had to work for a couple of hours or so before I’d earned enough money for the day, and after that I found myself at a loss for what to do with all the free time that suddenly stretched out before me, unmotivated to put forth any more than the minimum required effort.

I tried to meditate a little, since that’s the sort of thing I imagine hermits are supposed to do, but I’ve never been good at that and I didn’t get any better. I couldn’t manage to sit still for more than 15 minutes, and certainly never got anywhere near a state of serene oneness with the universe. And the thoughts and feelings that persistently bubbled up in my mind grew increasingly troubled.

I didn’t want to deal with those thoughts and feelings– I didn’t feel strong enough to face them. So rather than reveling in glorious streams of lucid thought and inspiration like I had imagined, I found myself wanting to avoid thinking, to shut off my brain. I became depressed. Soon I was spending most of my free time just watching movies on my computer, because that was the easiest way I knew to immerse myself in another world and distract myself from my thoughts. Soon I wasn’t really living, but just somehow managing to exist. At some point I realized this simply wasn’t working, and I had to stop.

So I gave up, and stepped out into the world again. I went to a meeting of NAPS organizers, met some nice people, and did a bit of gallivanting around Montreal. And I started reaching out to my various friends scattered around the world who I’d fallen out of touch with, catching up with their lives, making a deliberate effort to connect myself to them again.

And the amazing thing is that as soon as I did that, I suddenly felt better. The change was immediate and remarkable. The sense of imminent desperation and panic that had been closing in on me was gone. I was no longer depressed, and my motivation came back– I felt like writing blog posts and studying languages again. I felt like going out and doing things. I was myself again.

I’d say this experience has taught me two things:

  1. There may indeed be something to this whole isolation thing (there must be a reason the religious sages do it after all, right?), but it is hard, even for a proud introvert. I still suspect it could lead to some sort of profound insight if I could break through the psychological barriers that inevitably come up, but it would be no walk in the park.
  2. No matter how much of an introvert I am, I really do need people. I may want to tell myself my inspiration and motivation come from within, but I’m more aware now that much of it actually comes from my interactions with others. And I think I need to try to appreciate my friends more.

Sometime I might try this experiment again, but if I do, I’ll go all the way– actually find that isolated cabin with no Internet, no phone, no nothing, and stay there until I can break through the psychological barriers and conquer the dark thoughts. I believe I could do it, and it would be worthwhile. But maybe not for quite the same reasons I once assumed.

Has anyone else ever thought of becoming a hermit for a while? What do you think of the idea?


A little aside on my work situation: I know some of you may be wondering what this work is I’m doing on the Internet, so I’ll tell you a bit about it here. It’s really very simple: I’m working as a translator on Gengo.com. This is something I’ve been doing on and off in my spare time for a couple of years now, thanks to a suggestion by a reader of this blog actually. (I have no idea of you’re still reading, helpful reader, I really can’t thank you enough for that suggestion.) I never thought I’d be able to make a full time living through Gengo since there has never seemed to be that much work available there, but it turns out for the past month at least I’ve been able to. I’m actually quite surprised how easy it’s been. But even so, job availability on Gengo is unpredictable, and it wouldn’t be smart to trust it will continue to be reliable as a sole income source. For that reason I intend to explore other projects that might possibly help me support myself as well, but at least Gengo has gotten me off to a good start! I’m a digital nomad already! Wow, that was easy. What’s for lunch?

  • Philip Newton

    Hm, thought-provoking!

    I sometimes wonder about getting away from everything and everybody for a while, but now I wonder how that would actually play out.

    Which language pair(s) do you translate on Gengo?

    • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

      I guess you never know how it will play out until you try it. I imagine it could be different for everybody, but I think it’s probably safe to say it will force you to face any thoughts or feelings you’re used to distracting yourself from. Especially if you have no phone, no Internet, etc…

      On Gengo I translate almost exclusively from Japanese into English, since that pair has the largest number of jobs available and it’s also what I’m best at. Inexplicably I have also passed the tests for Chinese and Spanish, yet I haven’t been able to pass the French test even though my French is much better than my Chinese or Spanish… Honestly I think Gengo’s testing system needs some streamlining, even though I really like the fact they give people a chance to qualify based on pure ability rather than requiring “experience”, which can often be a catch-22 for talented people looking to get started working in a new field. Maybe I shouldn’t be able to pass the French test, but in that case I certainly shouldn’t be able to pass the Chinese or Spanish ones either. Anyway, although I am qualified to translate from Chinese and Spanish, the volume of jobs in those languages is so overwhelmingly small compared to Japanese that I very rarely translate from anything but Japanese.

      • Philip Newton

        I had a look and thought I’d try applying, but they’re not looking for English-to-German or German-to-anything just now. Ah well.

        Translation is not something I’d want to do as a main job, I think, but as a low-obligation “do the odd job here and there” it sounded interesting….

        • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

          There should be an option to sign up for an email alert whenever the test you want to take becomes available. Also, mytranslation.com is another website with a similar system of picking up jobs that focuses more on European languages, but their application process is stricter and they require proof of professional experience or qualifications.

          And yes translation can be a great way to earn a little extra income on the side, which I think is what most translators on Gengo do (especially those working with language pairs other than Japanese-English, since I don’t think there are enough jobs available in other pairs for full time work). I also don’t intend to do this full time forever, but for now I’m very happy to be able to support myself in this way!

  • SEA monster

    Are you sure you are an introvert? You seem to have the need to explain yourself and convey your thoughts and feelings in about every post you make. Yes, there is a certain elusiveness about you. And sometimes you seem purposefully lost, weird and on the border of nihilistic. But not introverted. But keep going, please as you are. I like strange people 🙂

    And congrats on the Gengo job!

    • http://www.janafadness.com Jana Fadness

      Yes, I am very sure I’m an introvert. I am well aware I may not come across that way in writing, but it’s very common for introverts to be more expressive in writing than we are in speaking. Anyway I’m pretty sure I know myself better than you do and am much better qualified to decide if I’m an introvert or not. I am one.

      And I’m trying to decide if the rest of your comment is an insult or not…

      • SEA monster

        Well, I just expressed how you come across to me. But I may be wrong. I often am. No need to get touchy. No offense intended 🙂

  • Joo Lee

    Hi Jana,
    I wonder if you’re still responding to new posts. I think you are an extraordinarily sensitive soul, and your aversion to getting your feelings hurt–or maybe even more to hurting the feelings of others–is the root of your desire to live like a hermit. At the same time, that sensitivity makes you crave human contact, so it’s a Catch-22. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous by venturing this analysis, but I feel like I am a kindred spirit, and I’m just projecting from my own self-reflections.

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