Weekly Edgework #62 - September 6, 2005

Search for Solitude

Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community (Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen).

There is a sense in which everyone alive is alone. Aloneness is rooted in the reality that we are all unique. There is no other person exactly like me in the world – with a package of genetics and experiences just like mine. I have no control over the fact that I am alone with my uniqueness. Uniqueness and aloneness are simply opposite sides of the same coin. They can not be separated. At a very basic level, I alone have to live with who I am. No one can live my life for me. I am alone.

But I do have some control over whether that aloneness grows into loneliness or solitude. Loneliness is painful. It makes me desperate. Loneliness causes me to cling to people or things in a futile attempt to make it go away. When I feel lonely I feel hard done by. Things are not fair. I feel disconnected. Others have friends with whom they can share intimacies, but I am trapped in my loneliness. No one understands how much I hurt. I am left to bleed to death in a wasteland of hopelessness and despair. At least so it seems.

It is possible to be surrounded by people but still be lonely. As a matter of fact, most lonely people are not recluses. They live in families. They shop in our malls. They attend social functions. They may be involved in a local church, even be church leaders and pastors. It is a wrong assumption to think that we can cure our loneliness by simply being with people. Loneliness comes from not coming to terms with our aloneness – from an illusion that we can find someone else “just like us” to share our little ledge on the rugged terrain of a diversified humanity. That is why many married persons are lonely. In the flush of falling in love they think they have found that perfect “other” who can cure their loneliness. But as they discover how different that other person actually is from them, loneliness often returns with a vengeance.

It is even possible to be a sincere and pious religionist and still be lonely. I have sometimes observed that those who are most profuse in testifying to how close they are to Jesus are often also the ones who show the most symptoms of loneliness. Either they cling to others in a smothering desperation or they activate a judgmental spirit to carve out for themselves an exclusive club in which they hope to find some salve for their lonely hearts. When we use a relationship with God to try to take away loneliness it will always fail in the end if we do not, in the process, come to terms with our aloneness rooted in our uniqueness.

And that is, in essence, what solitude is all about – becoming comfortable with who we are in our aloneness. Solitude is peaceful because we have made peace with ourselves. In solitude we no longer wish to be different or be someone else – we have accepted our genetic make up and our circumstances in life. We have learned to be human - divinely human. Solitude can look aloneness in the face and not flinch. In his book, “Becoming Human”, Jean Vanier suggests that before we can really grow spiritually we must first learn to be human. To be real, honest, vulnerable and transparent. When we begin to accept who we truly are, then God can begin to touch the core of our being and we can begin reaching out to God with integrity. Relating to God from the center of an illusionary self is in some ways an illusion itself.

Solitude is a primary building block for relating to others in healthy ways. The absence of healthy relationships all around us simply points to the fact that many people have not yet learned solitude. Without healthy solitude our reaching out to others ends up being more of a grasp than a touch. And there is a big difference between the two. People who feel grasped tend to recoil and move away from the one doing the grasping. However, people who are genuinely touched have a tendency to stay and even move closer. Solitude allows us to touch others in life-giving ways.

And so, ironically, finding our own solitude is really the only hope for discovering true community. Throw together a group of lonely people who have not come to terms with their aloneness and you are likely to end up with additional loneliness – plus extra hurts. When loneliness meets loneliness it tends to multiply. On the other hand, if you draw together a group of persons who have come to terms with their aloneness you create an almost instantaneous community of the heart.

But for most of us, growing solitude out of our aloneness is a life-long struggle. It seems that loneliness is the default position to which we naturally gravitate when we become aware of our aloneness. But learning solitude requires us to make conscious choices about whom to be with, whom to seek out for counsel, what to study, how to pray and how to think about ourselves. It also requires us to respect the solitude of others.

Solitude is in short supply in our fast-paced life style, but loneliness is found in every nook and cranny. It need not be this way. Solitude can become the defining hallmark of our lives if we are willing to keep working at it. I am still on the journey toward knowing true solitude. But I have tasted bits and pieces here and there and I hunger and thirst for more.