Dead to society. Choosing solitude over everything else

Being a young adult and living on your own just from your paycheck is a less common scenario these days. But there is an affordable type of solitude out there if you are completely sick of people. I am talking about going all the way and renouncing your current life. Not exactly the solution you expected? Well, it’s not even a solution, it’s a way of life that only some people can enjoy.

According to the Office for National Statistics in the UK the number of people living on their own went up by 16% to 7.7 million between 1997 and 2017. However, the number of people aged 25 to 44 living alone has fallen by 16% in the same period of time, while the number of 45 to 64-year-olds living on their own has increased by 53%.

So, is living alone really the ultimate unattainable luxury for young people?

There are rational reasons for this increase in the older age group such as the increased rate of divorce and a better paid jobs that allow them to afford their own place. But is there a way that young adults can live on their own without selling one of their kidneys?

This is not a story about economics. This is a story about the choice of living in solitude no matter the age.

When I said renouncing your life earlier, I was referring to letting go of everything that you have now and go away to live alone as a hermit.

Hermits or eremites are found in different religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism and Taoism and they are characterized as individuals who choose to live in seclusion from society for religious reasons. Today a hermit may refer to anyone who isolated themselves from society for any reason.

Amongst the first drop outs of society

If we were to go back and look at the first ever hermits, it’s worth mentioning Anthony the Great who moved to the desert in AD 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. He was part of the Desert Fathers, along with Desert Mothers, which represented early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt. The solitude, austerity, and sacrifice of the desert was seen by Anthony as an alternative to martyrdom, which was formerly seen by many Christians as the highest form of sacrifice. There is a book with the wisdom of some of the early desert monks and nuns, called Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which is actually available on Amazon if you feel like seeing what the early hermits thought about all day.

Later on, people still don’t like people

Of course, a complete list of historical religious hermits would take more than one article, but I say that we should move towards another popular hermit, less religious, but closer to our century.

You may have heard about Christopher Knight, who at 20 years old, in 1986 drove into a forest in rural Maine in the United States. He abandoned his car, took some very basic camping supplies and simply walked into the woods. According to the BBC, he didn’t come out again for 27 years.

Knight wandered aimlessly into the woods for a while and he found a small clearing near a lake. There he installed a nylon tent and even though he was only a few minutes away from the summer cabins in the area, he was completely hidden from the world. He survived by stealing supplies from this community. He only took what he needed – food, cooking fuel, clothes, boots, batteries for torches and a lot of books. Knight tried to cause as little damage as possible, but the sheer number of break-ins, more than 1,000 over the years, caused a lot of anxiety for some of the cabin owners.

Eventually the police set a trap and managed to catch him, but bear in mind this way of living lasted for 27 years without people being able to find him. While he was in prison, he corresponded with the writer Mike Finkel, who also visited him and wrote about him in his book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Whilst trying to find out why Knight chose this lifestyle, he discovered that the answer was that the guy was uncomfortable around other people. No other hidden reason. It was as simple as that. He also said that in the 27 years he was never bored.

How about having a village for yourself?

My friend, Mihaela Șamșodan, talked with Nicolae, a villager from Coada Lacului Leșu, Romania. Coada Lacului Leșu is a small village, in North-West Romania, in the county of Bihor. The village is almost deserted during the winter season. Even though there are cabins around, no one lives in them. They are just for the tourists, who want a break from the city during the summer. You can barely find any information about the village online. It’s so isolated that not even the mail is delivered here. However, a family is living there permanently. Nicolae and his wife have the village for themselves most of the year.

Nicolae was born there, and when he was young, he was offered a job at a Water Company located nearby. The job made him stay in his village, not leaving to live in the city. He had brothers and sisters, but as time went by, some of them died and the rest of them moved to an urban area. He lost connection with them. As time went by, Nicolae thought briefly about moving somewhere else, but he decided against it.

Coada Lacului Lesu Village, Romania. All these houses are the vacation houses, where tourists come during the summer.
photographer: Mihaela Șamșodan

He met his wife through one of his friends from another village. His friend met a girl who had a sister, he told Nicolae about her and that he should marry her. And that was it, they were married. She accepted living with him in Lesu even if there were no jobs or social life for her there. She admits that she is happy there, taking care of her cows, singing and talking to them every day, so that they know they are loved. They are her friends.
Nicolae and his wife provide almost everything for themselves. There is a single store in the village and it’s only open during the summer when the tourists are there, and the next closest one is 10 km away.

Nicolae and his wife have two children, a boy and a girl, who live in a nearby city. The kids are both married and have kids of their own. Interestingly, recently the boy decided to move back to Lesu, together with his family. The reason the boy wants to move back is because he doesn’t like the city life.
Nicolae didn’t ask his boy to come back home, he says that:

“There’s nothing to do here, you have no friends or people to talk to, except for the tourists who are here in the summer. If I were young again, in these times we are living I would move away. This is not a life a youngster should live, it is a life for us, the elders.”

Even so, it seems this isolated lifestyle is also appealing to the youngsters.

Your own suite with a church view

Travelling a bit back in time again, we briefly mentioned at the beginning the Desert Mothers, as a version of female hermits. But when it comes to women who chose to retreat from society, the life of the anchoresses is really fascinating. The word anchorite or anchoress comes from the Greek, anachoreo, meaning to withdraw.

“An anchoress was a woman who was walled into a cell to live a life of prayer and contemplation. (The male equivalent was an ‘anchorite’.) Anchoresses were enclosed in their cells and had no way to get out. Despite how extreme this may seem to us today, the anchoritic way of life seems to have been remarkably popular in the medieval period.”

-Mary Wellesley, The life of the anchoress, British Library (2018)
The formal enclosure of an anchoress in her cell by a bishop, from a pontifical produced for Bishop Mona of St David’s, 15th century. (Courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christie College, Cambridge,

In order to become an anchoress, a woman would have to apply to her local bishop, and she had to provide evidence that she had the financial means to support herself while she was enclosed. That shouldn’t cost too much, right? Usually, there were more women who chose this lifestyle than men. The anchoress would have two servants to look after her, mainly to bring her food and to take out the waste. Her small cell would have 3 windows, one of them would open onto a hallway for the servants, another one to the outside world and the third one onto the church, permitting the anchoress to observe the Mass.

Anchorites and anchoresses are different from hermits, because they used to be attached to a church and thus in a way, they were at the centre of community life.

They were allowed to have some visitors, usually people looking for spiritual guidance, so they were not living in complete solitude, but the social interactions were limited.

When a woman was enclosed in her cell, she became dead to the world. A priest would recite the office of the dead, which was the set of prayers said at a person’s funeral. She was no longer considered part of the real world. The main purpose for giving up a normal life was to better contemplate God and to go beyond the physical life as we know it.

A day in an anchoress life was mostly filled with contemplation and prayer, aside when she would receive visitors. Also, it seems that they were allowed to do some manual work such as making lace.

These days, it would seem insane to choose such a restrictive lifestyle, even though if we were to consider the costs, we could probably afford our own cell as young adults. What is even more interesting is that a great number of women were becoming anchoress, even though they were born to a good family. Were they just “uncomfortable around other people” as Knight claimed? Or was there something grimmer that pushed them in that direction? We can fantasize about the reasons, but there is no evidence in regard to this, other than the need to seek God.

As close as it gets to a 21st-century anchoress

While finding an anchoress these days is not really an option, Rachel Denton’s story gets quite close to this lifestyle. She is more of a hermit, since she doesn’t live in a cell attached to the church, but she does live at St Cuthbert’s House, which is primarily a house of prayer, part of The Diocese of Nottingham. According to the St Cuthbert website, where you can find some of Rachel’s thoughts, in 2006 she vowed in front of a bishop, family and friends to be a hermit for the rest of her life. Rachel explains on the website that:

“to live as hermit these days seems a strange and outlandish thing – but the reality is surprisingly ordinary. Before I could begin my life here as a hermit of the diocese of Nottingham, I presented the Bishop with a Rule of Life which describes how I would live in the hermitage – it states (amongst other things) a commitment to live in simplicity, solitude and silence, staying and returning there insofar as duties permit so I come back to solitude and silence in the same way most people come back to a family.”

Rachel earns her income from a small calligraphy workshop set up at St Cuthbert’s House. On the website visitors were able to order cards made by Rachel, but unfortunately right now it seems that because of an illness that started in 2017 she is not able to practice calligraphy and no cards are available.

Her desire for solitude may have roots in her early days in this world. She was deaf as a child, but her hearing was restored after an operation and suddenly noise came into her life. Rachel’s story was covered along the years by different media outlets, and she explains to the BBC that while she was in university she had “boyfriends and all of that”, and then she entered a convent for a year as a Carmelite nun, a Roman Catholic religious order. Her father, who was a university lecturer, thought that this decision was a waste of her academic potential, but she did it anyway. While she was there, she enjoyed the silence and solitude, but realized that she couldn’t bear the communal living, which led her to a solitary life.

Rachel makes use of technology in order to earn a living and to give updates to her family. She has a Twitter account, @hermitrachel, where her status says: “Hermit, scribe, printer – tweets are rare, but precious!” Her last tweet this year was on August 26, sharing a link to something she wrote for the Sunday Bulletin about coping with change. She seems to be posting something every few months and usually it’s something she wrote for this bulletin.

You would expect for a hermit to completely give up on technology, but it seems that Rachel is using it not to get retweets, likes or to talk with people, but just for the purpose of exposing her work, without caring how the internet reacts. When I say exposing her work, I don’t mean in order to get famous, but in order to inform others about what a hermit’s life is like. Could this be how a hermit-internaut would behave in an online environment? Could this become a thing these days when everyone talks about digital detox?

Modern-day hermits

Living in isolation can go as far as renouncing all the technology, using it from time to time or using it all the time. Hikikomori are the modern-day hermits from Japan. The term refers to people who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time. A government survey found that half a million people live like this in Japan, but it is believed that the number might be even higher since not all of them seek help or talk about how they live.

Cases of hikikomori can be found anywhere in the world really, but it seems that all of them started in Japan. The word was coined by the Japanese psychologist Tamaki Saito in his 1998 book Social Withdrawal, Adolescence Without End.

A usual stigma about these people is that they are lazy, young people with social anxiety who play video games all day in their room. While modern technology is believed to have an influence on those who become hikikomori, it’s still unclear how deeply those two are related. They are using the technology, some of them even reporting that they feel internet addicted, but what makes them withdraw is usually an event that made them stray off their path, not laziness or the need to stay in front of a PC.

While hikikomori are called the modern hermits, we have to acknowledge that those who don’t want to leave their house anymore, might also have mental health problems such as depression and in their modern hermitage they are not seeking any enlightenment or trying to live a simpler, meaningful life. It’s a condition that seems to affect more and more people and not a conscious lifestyle choice. Therefore, hermits and technology can coexist, as far as being a hermit isn’t meant as an excuse to not leave your room.

Talking about hermits and technology, you might want to check a website called Hermitary, where you can find news, sites, and pages of interest about hermits and solitude.

Solitude, a luxury?

Seems funny that even though these people try to escape from society and from us, we can’t get enough of them and journalists, academics and writers keep tracking them down in order to find out about this surreal lifestyle. It might be that deep down most of us are tempted to try this, but afraid to admit it?

After all, it’s kind of a luxury not to be disturbed by anyone, ever.

*This article is part of Divest Magazine

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