The Surprising Connection Between Gratitude and Solitude

The Gratitude Connection

The Surprising Connection Between Gratitude and Solitude

By Donald Officer


Overview by Harry Waldron – In our fast-paced world, there is a need to slow down, evaluate, and discover areas where we can become more grateful. That search may seem more difficult in the midst of a pandemic and national unrest.  Solitude is a tool that allows us to take a “time out” to internally meditate and reflect.  There are options to become bitter over present circumstances or thankful we’ve made it so far. And even during suffering, trials, and tribulations — we can always find hidden nuggets of gratitude.  Proverbially, the little boy with no shoes, later counted his blessings that he still had his legs & feet.  This excellent monthly review shares how solitude can help connect us with the principles of gratitude and acknowledgment. 

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 John Milton, On his blindness


In this troubled year, some of us have faced overwhelming demands while thousands of others endured pain, illness and often a lonely end with little consolation. All the while, the rest of us remained helpless in involuntary isolation as tragedy and uncertainty spread relentlessly from country to country and region to region. What were and are we to do? Is there any way to find value in this sharp severance from the life we knew? Is there room for Grateful Leadership in this?

While many have extended well-deserved deep gratitude to those at the front or quietly delivering vital services, where will we, in our disconnect, find reserves to lead or model the strength, gratitude, and encouragement soon to be so needed in trials still to come? In confusion or desperation can we find capacity? Looking around, I discovered positive examples, rather surprising in light of what we assume to be unchanging character markers or just the nature of human beings in general. But the evidence is there, and we would be foolish to dismiss it.

In The June issue of “The Atlantic” Vivian Gornick writes about a woman she calls Stella who has long been convinced everyone else has a better life. Twisted by this conviction, she has undergone years of psychotherapy to better cope with her “envious depression.” Unfortunately, all she seems to have achieved over that time is an awareness of her misanthropy. The burden of her isolation has become all the heavier now she knows she alone can break herself free of it.

When the virus assaulted the City, a concerned Gornick thought to call Stella who uncharacteristically was clearly not in her usual or even more pronounced state of bitter resignation. “I’m fine,” she said, “because we’re all in this together.” Something about “The Fellowship of Suffering,” as author Gornick titled her article, had turned the recluse around. Could it be that the years of self-imposed solitude had somehow finally taught its lessons in grit or prepared her for the resilience we all must learn to muster in the formidable days before us?

Author Michael Harris who admittedly has led a life with little space for solitude, published a book a couple of years ago that took on the lonely topic, Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. The impetus for writing it, as his chapters reveal, was less out of a craving for alone time and more from his growing appreciation the lack of it is costing all of us. Harris begins and punctuates his book with tales reflecting our deep admiration for individuals who accept their solitary state, suffer for it yet still emerge to embody a priceless form of gratitude which comes only with great growth in self-knowledge: The very transformation Grateful Leaders aspire to live.

In his prelude to the first part of Solitude, the author tells the story of Doctor Edith Bone. Imprisoned in 1949 by the new Hungarian communist government on allegations of espionage, she would spend seven years in solitary confinement. Without the aid of others, she pulled her thoughts together, fashioned letters from bits of stale bread, built an abacus from stray broom bristles, remastered five of the six languages she spoke – refusing only to voice her native Hungarian in silent protest for her mistreatment. During the revolutionary chaos of 1956 Bone was released, calm and steady as she was when she began her undetermined term of solitude.

Nearing the end of his solitude safari, Michael Harris relates the story of Admiral Byrd, who volunteered for five winter months at a weather base near the South Pole. Alone, he nearly died and was lucky to be rescued when his health deteriorated after a carbon monoxide poisoning. Byrd received the Medal of Honor for his ordeal. It seems to us that he earned it. We’ve a thousand reasons for chastising those antisocial souls who risk the dangers of total isolation in ‘iffy’ environs, yet we grant them all unqualified admiration, surely not for their foolhardiness nor their courage alone, but for showing us something that changes each of us too.

In the late middle ages, many devout and markedly persistent souls of both genders took on the role of holy hermit, persuading parishes to build them confining solitary cells adjacent to local churches. Resolute in a faith that often sustained them through decades of solitude, their examples, according to accounts, inspired thousands to live demonstrably better lives in the world these anchorites chose to renounce. Such solitary figures also appear in the early centuries of Christianity; innumerable inspirational counterparts emerge in other faith traditions as well.

Harris doesn’t conceal a personal admiration for the pursuit of solitude while admitting he does not have the fortitude for the more extreme forms it sometimes takes. He produces multiple reasons for worry over the busy, hasty, crowded lifestyle which is the modern default. He admits being snobbishly disdainful of phenomena like collectively produced fan fiction or the precious fetishes of people who pay to write letters in sessions that both use and venerate classic manual typewriters. A great believer in silent reader solitude, he also doubts the value of the “retrograde” return of adult gatherings where books are read aloud. Yet he notes that when few written texts existed, even sophisticated readers like St. Augustine mouthed the words they read.

In the end, Harris spends a week alone at his grandparents’ Pender Island retreat, discovering in the process a new respect for the assertive details of nature and a capacity to organize his thoughts and actions along mindful lines. Likewise, at the end of Vivian Gornick’s tale of distrust and suspicion, she describes a recent video showing a volunteer in a Bronx ICU leaving a bedside with a blood-spattered towel in hand. When the volunteer removes her mask, Gornick sees Stella as she never appeared to her before, unmistakably recognizable yes, but exalted.



What role does gratitude play in your life? Gratitude Connection monthly and International Institute for Learning Senior Vice-President, Judith W. Umlas in her acclaimed books, Grateful Leadership, Using the Power of Acknowledgment to Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results and The Power of Acknowledgment, will help you see the possibilities.