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Getting Lost: "Isolation is the Answer"
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An Essay by K.B. Morgan
How many times does one hear others say, "I just need to get away from it all?" This phrase is one of great importance to most human beings. What is it saying? It is conveying a desire for privacy, isolation, and possibly quiet solitude. Anne LaBastille (1992) explains that, "Solitude and silence are positive, precious life forces which every human needs and has the birthright to enjoy" (p. 6). Where does this personal desire for isolation come from? It could range from any one of the common pressures of everyday life, stress from work, daily responsibilities, social pressures, weather; basically any kind of stressor that one experiences. Why would getting away or physically removing one's self be an answer to a problem? Where does one go, exactly, to 'get away?' How can this 'getting away' and regulating one's privacy be important in the continued well being of an individual? The answers to these questions may be found through exploring why one chooses isolation as a problem solving tool. There are certain times when one feels the need to isolate oneself from others, whether it be physically or mentally, and just reflect or do something relaxing.
First of all, why does one desire isolation or solitude when daily life gets a little too busy and overwhelming? For one thing, privacy is used to regulate the access of others to oneself or group (Altman, 1975). When one experiences a sensory or information overload, whether great or small, the most logical thing to do is to cut off or regulate that sensory stimulation received. What better way to do this than to isolate oneself from the stimulations? This situation describes a key element in the desire for isolation; control. The desire for isolation comes from the perceived loss of control of one's life or any part thereof. It is, therefore, easy to understand how strong this desire for isolation can be when one perceives that the control over his or her life is in jeopardy. William Hammit (1982) stated that "a very desirable feature of wilderness is that compared to the pressing demands of everyday urban life, it allows us to control what we pay attention to and which activities we engage in" (p. 210). He goes on to explain that "getting away from it all" means escaping from a place where the individual is controlled, to a place where the individual can choose what to do and not to do.
There is also a certain "cognitive freedom" that an individual possesses when controlling his or her own experiences. Freedom is probably one of the highest sought-after rights of any human being on the earth. Everyone desires freedom. It is the ability to do and choose whatever one wants. By isolating one's self from others it is easier to govern oneself and make decisions based upon one's own opinions and desires. This freedom to control the activities in one's life gives an individual more self-esteem and self-respect. Freedom of choice is a large factor in the desire for personal isolation.
Another area to consider in the desires for isolating oneself is that of emotional release. Human beings have the natural urge to distance themselves from others when they feel certain overwhelming emotions approaching. This can include crying, laughing, mourning, or just deep thinking. One's personal desires for isolation in these instances are, of course, largely dependent on the type of personality one has. An individual that is more extroverted may not mind others seeing their emotional side and therefore would not seek isolation. On the other hand, a more introverted person might be more self-conscious about their showing of emotion, and seek an out-of-the-way retreat. Here they can release their emotions, and thus feel more comfortable. An example of this could be when a person is informed about the death of a close friend or relative and "needs to be alone for a little while." This illustrates the need for a comfort barrier. A place where one does not have to worry about anyone watching them or judging them, is essentially a comfort barrier. This is where the individual can concentrate on his or her thoughts and not be distracted in their state of contemplation. Whatever the reason for the emotion, isolation can be a useful vehicle for a more personal, cathartic emotional release.
Sometimes, an emotional release can lead to the desire to contemplate one's own personal identity. This self-examination is "the opportunity to evaluate social experiences and plan future social behaviors with the goal of preserving self-identity" (Pedersen,1988). Everyone, at some time or another, has to ask themselves the questions "Who am I?" and "What am I doing here?" It is this natural human instinct that distinguishes human beings from other animals. Humans are always pondering and curious about life and their purpose on earth. It is at times like these, when questions are so personal and individually oriented, that one seeks isolation to contemplate his or her own existence. When isolated, with no distractions, one can more easily peruse the thoughts and feelings of one's heart. It is in these solitary instances that many religious-oriented people take the opportunity to pray or communicate with their God. Isolation can thus be a very useful tool in finding oneself and discovering one's inner-most beliefs.
The reasons that one desires isolation from others or society in general are important. These desires are actually the beginning of a process. First, the desire, then the physical removal, and lastly the regulation of privacy through the use of isolation.
The idea of physically removing one's self is based on the fact that there is some place to go where chances of obtaining isolation are high. The places that first come to mind are those that provide a distance barrier, if not a physical barrier, between the stresses and the individual or group. For this reason, areas spanning large distances, such as overlooks, mountains, wilderness, deserts, islands and large state parks, accommodate this need. Activities that one normally does in these areas, such as hiking, camping, mountain biking, climbing, etc., positively add to the whole experience of "getting away," as well as providing something enjoyable to think about besides the stressors.
The visual aspect of this physical removal is the first aspect to cover. Jerome Robinson (1991), in his article Yosemite Backpack Adventure, wrote, "Yosemite, one of our most popular national parks ... offers something more precious than famous rivers or fabled pools: solitude amid the most superb scenery you can imagine" (p. 100). Scenery, showing the features of a beautiful, natural landscape, can be one of the most awe- inspiring things available to man, at no cost. What is it that one appreciates so much about beautiful views? There is the fact that nature itself is just breathtaking. Nature is beautiful in different ways to different people. Perhaps it is the nothingness that one feels when comparing one's self to the vastness of earth and space. Some appreciate just being out in nature's confines, where no other human beings are. Others like the awesome sight of nature's natural formations, green foliage, or just the clean smell.
The visual impact of nature, however, is one of the greatest reasons that one desires to isolate oneself away from the everyday urban world. The following experience illustrates the visual impact of isolation: "A few years ago at Snowbird, Utah, I stood at the highest point the lifts service, which is just under 13,000 ft. in elevation. As I stood on that mountain top, one of the tallest around, the air was clear and clean, the visibility went for miles and miles. In my rushed day of skiing I simply had to stop and take in the 360 degrees of pure grandeur before me. The vastness of the natural mountain terrain was incredible. There I was, about six feet tall, standing above huge, immense geological formations that normally tower over my tiny little existence." (KB Morgan, 1996) There is a euphoric, drug-like high that one experiences at this point. Beholding a spectacle such as this, a person can interpret the beauty and appreciate it on a very personal level while contemplating their own existence. At times, like in this case, it can be a very spiritual moment. Each person has their own reason for isolation. The visual aspect of this physical removal (i.e. scenery and views) can be a very powerful and satisfying motive.
"Getting away from it all," into nature's confines, has a social aspect as well. One way of defining privacy is in terms of control over unwanted encounters or situations (Hammit, 1991). By physically escaping to nature, people find less social stimuli with which they must cope, and turn their attention to more environmentally oriented stimuli. This coping behavior is commonly known as displacement. This happens when one is dissatisfied with one's environment and feels a crowding affect. Therefore, the individual or group displaces themselves from the stressors experienced utilizing the above mentioned locations.
Security is certainly a social aspect to discuss. For many people, experiencing nature and its benefits provides security in many ways. Some feel security solely for the fact that they are out in the wilderness and there is a great likelihood, depending on how far out they go, that no one is around for miles. This is a great reason to escape urban pressures and fears. Another type of security comes from knowing that one has left behind the social pressures to perform and one can act as natural as one feels. Some people may feel that they do "perform" when around others and physically removing themselves into nature can definitely be relaxing. Along with this observation is the fact that many people also feel they are judged in their every day social life. When removed away from these pressures, one comes to feel a real freedom from their peers' watchful eyes and this paranoia is able to evaporate.
Another social aspect of isolation, or an action that is related to it, is the degree of isolation people choose to live in. Lately, many people are building homes outside of cities. They realize that even though one might have to work in the city, one does not have to live there with its pressures. They build homes closer to wilderness areas, or actually in wilderness locations, because of the many benefits provided by the isolation received. Some of these benefits include less noise, fewer people, less crime, less pollution and more sensory satisfaction. Even if one cannot build a home in the backcountry, some chose to visit and vacation there as often as possible, to receive these benefits just mentioned. One example of a retreat that provides these benefits is the Sundance Resort in the Provo canyon just north of Provo, Utah. It is a location that is twenty minutes from a primarily urban area, yet tucked away in a canyon behind the protection of 11,000 ft. Mt. Timpanogos. One finds themself deep in the forest with a cabin literally cradling them in the middle of the thick forest growth. It is mere minutes from "civilization," yet there is no clue, no sound, nothing that hints otherwise. All that one hears while quietly relaxing is the sound of the river that literally runs under the back deck. Submerging one's self in such isolated, serene surroundings while merely being twenty minutes from busy, urban life, is the answer to what many city workers are looking for.
Another aspect of physical removal from society into nature is the mental view. Anne LaBastille's (1992) perspective on the mental benefits of nature and its beauties is one of profound insight. Speaking specifically of Adirondack Park she explains that "its greatest value to human-kind will be the healing of psychological wounds. The mountains, lakes, and forests will become our psychiatrists. Stress therapy will be solitude and silence scheduled at regular intervals." She goes on to quote the late Edward Abbey, author and park ranger, "'we need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime, drugs or psychoanalysis'" (p. 7) The natural environment has the power to set one's mind at peace and give hope to a sometimes dreary world.
In Anne LaBastille's article, The Park of Sacred Spaces, an experience is told of a class she taught in Wilderness Literature and Writing. She required each person to take a 24-hour solo trip in the Adirondack backcountry. The students discussed feelings of excitement, worry and fear. They talked through these feelings and she reassured them that all would be well. After a short bout with the school administration and resolving parents' concerns for their children's safety, she asked the students if they wanted to cancel the trips. They unanimously voted to continue. She then comments about the results of the students' trips saying, "Every student proclaimed the solo an integral part of the course. Many learned practical lessons . . . Others took leaps of self-confidence and courage. Two wrote superb nature journals. Most importantly, each one experienced 'confrontation of the self by the self' which Sue Halpern McKibben . . . calls 'solitude's true vocation.'" (LaBastille, 1992, p. 7)
There are certainly many health benefits to periodic, physical isolation deep in nature's boundaries. Due to the fact that urban life normally leads to smog and other types of pollution, many people get away to wilderness areas just to breathe clean air. In fact, it is not uncommon for doctors to prescribe physical removal to a location that maintains cleaner air. Sunlight and a view of nature alone can mentally, if not physically help people to maintain one's health. One study done on the power of a window in hospital environments showed that views of nature, especially nature with greenery, seemingly restored individuals physiologically and psychologically. (Ulrich, 1993)
There is definitely a great importance in regulating one's privacy, primarily the amounts of isolation and solitude one attains. As with many other things in life, balance is the key. Normally, one cannot survive purely on isolation from the stresses of the world. Stressors can sometimes be valuable to an individual in the fact that they are challenges to take on and overcome. This can provide great growth opportunities and aid an individual in coping with life on earth as a human being. Unfortunately, few people realize that a total lack of "solitude and silence," as Anne LaBastille puts it, can be very detrimental to one's overall happiness. Today's society of a hustle-bustle lifestyle fills up people's lives with work, food, drinking, TV, cars, and parties. People don't realize the importance of removing one's self from these things periodically and allowing nature to ". . . soothe and gentle your soul, nourish and toughen your body, clarify your mind and empower your life." (LaBastille, 1992)
Regulating one's need for isolation, finding appropriate locations for isolation, and understanding one's own desires for isolation can help individuals define their need for privacy. The subject of isolation is much more exhaustive than this small discussion and one should surely read more about it to obtain a better understanding of it. "Getting away from it all" certainly has its advantages and should be taken more seriously than it is taken!