From Strangers to Friends by
(31 Stories)

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Solitude liberated me from isolation and mediocrity.

For me, isolation results from a feeling of imprisonment.  I have felt physically isolated in a crowd, at a bar, in a faculty meeting or even in the exercise gym where I am the weakest and slowest.

For me, solitude is self-chosen: a personal path to exploring myself and recognizing the values of others.  My cherished experiences are entering a secluded national forest in the fall. Sitting crossed legged, I listen to the birds, treasure the many colors of the fall trees, watch an occasional snake taking its last bask in the warm sun before gracefully weaving into its winter asylum, and feeling the cool atmosphere change from warm to chill…  

Complementing my physical satisfaction, I reach into my backpack for a collection of reading.  Dominant are the writings of Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, and Saul Bellow.  I read them not necessarily for their meaning—Buber’s I and Thou, Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, and Langston Hughes’ autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander.  Their themes and significance have been explained too many times.

Rather, in solitude their writings inspire me to achieve a meaningful life despite challenges and disappointment. Buber chose his own path to religious studies, pacifism, and cosmopolitanism despite the Nazis.  He left the usual academic world to study Chinese, argued in correspondence with Gandhi about the application of non-violence for the German Jews, initially refused to exit Palestinian Jerusalem during the War of Independence, and suffered rejection from an appointment in Jewish studies at Hebrew University for an inappropriate position in Sociology.

Kafka, though not an observant Jew, was the quintessential Jewish writer.  His fecundity of Jewish stories such as the Golem, the Kabbalah, and Jacob’s ladder, were reflected in his writings—such as The Trial, and The Metamorphosis.

 The Burrow, left unfinished before he died, introduced a cryptic unnerving story about a being that burrows through a system of tunnels that it has built over its lifetime. The creature is constantly afraid of something happening to his burrow or being attacked from an enemy. It is thought that the story was supposed to have concluded with the invasion of a beast that disrupts the system.

For Kafka, his writings could not possibly communicate what he wanted. In his will he ordered that they, like him, be extinguished. Although he avoided the coming Nazi genocide, his wife disappeared, also, into the abyss of the concentration camps.



Reading in solitude invests me with a spiritual companionship

I cannot obtain from crowds.




Profile photo of Richard C. Kagan Richard C. Kagan

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Your distinction between solitude and isolation or loneliness is important, and one I recognize. I’m glad you gave more insight into your choice of books and authors too.

  2. Thanx for your thoughtful post on the virtues of solitude Richard. I don’t know the writers you mention as well as you, but I have mentioned Langston Hughes in my story Box Score!

    • Dear Dana:
      It is wonderful to share Langston Hughes’ memory with you. When I lived in the New York Barrio, I bought his books in the Black Muslim bookstore on 125th. street. I am aware of the problems of women journalists such as Clara through my knowledge of Barbara Tuchman’s struggles to land a journalist’s job in America in the early 30’s. Fortunately for my profession, she was the first female journalist in Japan and China in the 30s. She contributed to the Institute of Pacific Relations

      BTW,I enjoyed your Box Score retrospect. I have much to comment on but am taking care of a fallen paper wasp nest in my backyard.


  3. pattyv says:

    I’m right there with you Rich, sometimes the isolation in crowds, the preference for solitude perhaps too much. My garden is my National Park, the birds and animals my contemplation, oh but the best adventures are the books. The favorite authors become friends, in a strange heart & head connection. You described it perfectly.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for so clearly outlining the difference between chosen solitude and loneliness/isolation, which is often imposed by circumstances. Your solitude, reflection, and reading allow you to experience insights into life and yourself.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Richard, I agree with you about chosen solitude vs. isolation (which is quite different). But your reading material is heavy indeed. Years ago I turned to my brother and asked him to explain Buber and the “I, thou” concept to me. I’m still not entirely certain that I understand it. But clearly, these works are deep and meaningful for you and that is what counts.

  6. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts about the benefit of solitude. I truly admire the people who go out and hike the Appalachian Trail (or any similar endeavor) on their own for weeks or even months at a time. My nephew recently did the whole thing from Georgia to Maine. I can’t even fathom a few days like that, totally on my own without a loved one or a good buddy at least.
    Here is an excerpt from my father’s memoir (which i edited posthumously).

    Aunt Esther had a keen sense of humor. I’ve always remembered this story she told me: There was a philosopher who said, “Tell me what you read and I can tell you what you are.” A man said, “I read Spinoza, Shakespeare, Plato and Kant.” The philosopher leaned forward and said,, “I’ll tell you what you are—a liar.”
    I believe that you do read and embrace all the philosophers and important authors you have cited! However, your narrative led me to recall this story and I could not resist sharing with you and the community..

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    Very evocative for me, who has his entire life found peace and comfort in books.

    Unexpectedly (for me, who once scoffed at such notions) I find a similar peace of mind on my mountain bike. Reading a new stretch of trail, riding it, if it was difficult going back up, re-reading it, repeating until it feels right. For me, the two provide surcease and satisfaction that feel very similar.

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