I think I have dreamed about hermitage for as long as I can remember. On long motorway journeys as a child, I remember staring out at the clumps of woodland alongside the road, trying to decide which bits would be best for a little isolated shack. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that it might be too noisy right next to a motorway.
It never quite left me. There’s still a part of me that wishes I was bold enough to just strut out into the middle of nowhere and just start building and planting. I certainly don’t have the skills necessary for actual survival, but at least I’d find out.
The main thing stopping me (aside from fear) is actually rather ludicrous, but its there. Basically, I worry that to run away to isolation basically means to skip out on any attempt to make the world better. Sure, I might be able to get ultra-low impact, and start living a life that, if lived by everybody, could stay within the means of our planet, but I would also have no part in persuading other people this was important.
A good hermit has to be isolated, but that limits the amount of good they can do. If you lose the network effects of society, then we are all just drops in the ocean.
Perhaps that’s a more authentic way of living. We are individuals, we are alone, we can’t make a difference. Perhaps I’m kidding myself to believe that I can impact on the people around me in a positive way. And even when I do, can that ever scale up to actually making the world better?
My argument against isolationism always crumbles under cynicism, but I still can’t escape it. Despite reams of negativity, I don’t like to be defeatist. Giving up on society is the ultimate form of giving up. If you try to fully separate yourself from the other billions on this planet then there’s something you’ve given up on.
I mean, I can see why you would. Society is big, complex, unfair and greedy. A quick scan of the amount of stuff being used up and thrown away, and an acknowledgement of the fact that available matter is finite, shows us that something bad is going on, or at least going to happen. If you bail out, run to the hills, you could perhaps make yourself resilient enough to survive a bad something. You might just be able to go about your own business until you die.
I can see the appeal, but I can’t help but want to stick around and try and make things better. This is probably just a selfish addiction to people and security. It’s much easier to be lazy and socialised.
A good hermit just gets on with it, but you don’t hear about them, so they’re no good for you. If you could still be a hermit whilst advertising an alternative life, that’d be something.
But not hermitage.
Illustration by Helen