I think the most striking thing about my life right now is the tension between loneliness and solitude. Now, before I go further, the reader must be aware that when I say loneliness I don’t mean that I don’t have any friends or don’t ever hang out with anyone. Rather, the loneliness I speak of comes from the experience of living in this world and common experiences in humanity: restlessness, drivenness, self doubt, fear, and insecurity: the things that often keep us from entering into true relationships with others. Nouwen states that
When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.” (17)
These kinds of insecurities that lead me (and us on the whole) to become preoccupied (or worried) by thoughts of tomorrow, other concerns, busyness, and the need to be occupied all moments of our time. In truth, these insecurities and preoccupations keep us from listening attentively to ourselves. This is the true difference between solitude and loneliness, which I am need of learning for my own life. Hear Nouwen again,
By slowly converting our loneliness into a deep solitude, we create that precious space where we can discover the voice telling us about our own inner necessity — that is, our vocation. Unless our questions, problems, and concerns are tested and matured in solitude, it is not realistic to expect answers that are really our own. How many people can claim their ideas, opinions, and viewpoints as their own? … Even the most intimate concerns, such as the concerns about the meaning and value of life and death, can become victims of the fashion of the time. Frequently, we are restlessly looking for answers, going from door to door, from book to book, from school to school, without having really listened carefully and attentively to the questions.
A poet once said that we need to live the questions now and perhaps in the future those questions would find answers. That same poet talked about vocation not as something that someone else affirmed but that our own lives or skills affirmed when we found that we had to do that or that it was in the deepest part of our hearts- so much so that we had to build our entire lives around this call in our lives and let our lives be testimony to that call we found deep inside ourselves.
But we are often so afraid to make that space, to empty our schedules to be aware of what our own inner voice, or inner call is telling us. Perhaps it is the Holy Spirit or ourselves. Either way, we are called into a solitude of paying attention to our innermost self. Once we start paying attention to our innermost self and not denying the pressures the world puts on us, the feelings we have, the perspectives and ideas we have, the desires we strive for, then we begin to actually appreciate the space we have for ourselves and create that freeing space for others. In those moments when we move towards solitude, we actually catch a vision of what it means to be human and then we can express great joy at our commonality, our beauty- and we can also learn through that solitude to be more gentle, affectionate, and compassionate with others, simply because we have paid attention to innermost selves.
Solitude doesn’t always have to be silence and it doesn’t always have to be living life like a hermit, but it does require some things from us. It requires that we try to let go of the insecurities of becoming occupied and busied by so much. It requires that we listen to ourselves, and instead of looking for answers from everything else, seek first to know ourselves and our responses. It requires that instead of separating from the world, we become part of it as people who in their own innermost are secure. We often try to get away from the sad and depressing news, but perhaps instead of being people who react and seek answers elsewhere, in solitude we can comfortably, gently, and compassionately respond as we think is really appropriate in love.
Thus, solitude of the heart opens our world by being attentive to the space in our hearts. There we can hear ourselves and ponder and wonder and awe and understand the feelings and desires we have internally and the actions and events and relationships we see and share externally. We still struggle with loneliness, by instead of being restless to fill our lives with answers and activities, we become powerfully content in ourselves and find a peace not from others, but from the presence of God within us. That space and presence within us is the framework through which we give freedom and space to others to find their own joy and live their own questions.
In sum, I realize that solitude of the heart is about paying attention to myself. It means treasuring the questions and the answers I see within myself, and valuing my ability to reflect, think, and understand. It means clearing out my need to be preoccupied by scheduling too many activities, and allowing the interruptions and complexities of life to be gifts that I reflectively respond to rather than restlessly react to. Interruptions of life and the wounds of the world become opportunities to seek deeper places of life and vitality- but it can only be done when we have a solitude of the heart that doesn’t helplessly depend on others reactions and judgments on us. Solitude takes my restless and helpless desert with all the fears and insecurities and makes it a desert of gentleness, compassion, a new awareness and alertness in life, new creations and fills me with life beginning in my innermost. I leaves with words from Thomas Merton, quoted in Nouwen’s Reaching Out,
Once God has called you to solitude, everything you touch leads you further into solitude…What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily. It shall become a pool, it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy. It is in the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things. (36)
Gracious God, help me to center myself and give myself the space that reflects that I treasure myself, all so that I might truly be blossoming wilderness for others like your Son.