Last week, I came across a story in GQ about a man who lived alone in the hills of Maine for 27 years. This fascinated me. Not just because the story is so unusual, but because the novel I’m currently trying to get into the world is about a man living alone in the hills.
My character runs to the wilderness because he believes a plague is days away from ending humanity. The fellow in Maine had no such dark conceptualizations. Indeed, he survived through hundreds of thefts perpetrated upon the residents of a nearby town. And yet, like the main character in my novel, he went years without speaking to or being seen by another human. In the article, he speaks to the consequences of that.
“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
Can we only be free by living without connections? That question is an ancient one. The Buddhists instruct us to let go of our wants, that suffering is only ended by living in neither the past nor an imagined future. Is that how this man in the GQ article lived? Surely not. He was a thief, always coveting, always plotting how to survive the hard winters.
And yet there is indeed a romanticism in the idea of escaping the world and its people. Particularly nowadays when so much of what we do is observed and cataloged. While no one may know my name in the supermarket, cameras capture me, my credit card company logs me, my phone tracks me. Is that not a form of bondage? And if it is, then doesn’t the only true freedom exist outside of it?
In his heart, the character in my novel longs to to live free from the observations and expectations of others. As for the man in the GQ story, he says he doesn’t know why he retreated to the hills. Perhaps he has forgotten the reason. Or perhaps he never could articulate it to himself. But I can understand what would pull someone away from the world. Even though I am content in my warm house, submitting words to the databases of the world, I question if I am free. If any of us are.