Solitude and the Life Cycle
Over the course of examining solitude as a neglected path to God we have been challenged to see solitude as a choice – a positive choice. We have been encouraged to understand solitude as an opportunity to explore a dimension often either discouraged by others or unavailable to us due to the circumstances of our life. We have also been cautioned to not allow the path of solitude to become all-encompassing of our life just as we have been cautioned not to allow the path of community and constant busyness to become all-encompassing. It is amazing how we can read of Jesus’ own moments and times spent in solitude and somehow gloss over them as if they were just intermissions in the real business of life. Our own desire to find meaning and purpose through activity leads us to dismiss such moments as a waste of time and yet those moments in Jesus’ life provided the answers and direction he needed to fulfil that life of meaning and purpose and great activity.
So, I would say to all of us that to follow the path of solitude - to make solitude a vital part of our own life, to find time to take that path – is a critical component of our own spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health and development. We will never face the depth of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical struggles that Jesus faced, but why do we even believe that we might not have to exercise the same regimen of self-care that he exhibited in his life and has been recorded for us in the pages of the gospels.
So, the first thing we need to be aware of is that solitude as a path to our relationship with God is vital. The degree to which we can follow that path and have it be a positive experience depends to a large extent on the permission we give ourselves and the permission we give to others.
Within these walls we live in a society established with certain expectations and demands. We seek as people within this society to be responsible to one another for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. But we also live in a society beyond these walls. That society has also been established with certain expectations and demands. It also requires us to be responsible to one another for our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. And as we live in these two worlds, we face the reality of having to make decisions as to how we can fulfil all the expectations and demands that this places upon us. Our involvement in these two societies will change over the course of our lives. And we will need to be aware of these changes and be able to learn how to manage our involvement taking care to not lose ourselves in the process.
I can remember very well having one son who at times found his daily routine to be overwhelming. He would come to me with some symptom of an ailment that he felt would prevent him from going to school. I knew that he was not really sick, but I also knew that to push him to go would not have been in his best interest or the best interest of his classmates and his teacher. It didn’t happen often – maybe two or three times a year – but he would take what I would describe as a mental health day. He would spend the day engaged in activities of his own choosing but it was a quiet day spent at home. The next day he would return to school perfectly ready to take on whatever might come his way. Understanding his limits and being able to respond and make the necessary accommodations to his needs was critical to his well-being. As he got older my ability to help him deal with those limits was challenged but I knew that for him those times of drawing apart from his regular world and activities was critical.
Each stage of our life presents with challenges. As children and adolescents, we are exploring the world and all its opportunities. At times it may be us pushing the envelope in terms of taking on new activities or challenges and at other times we may have found that it was our parents who had an agenda – a plan for our life, one that they saw as our ultimate fulfilment. Often we learn at an early age what is and is not appropriate for life. If we learn that any time spent in mindless activity or with no set goal is a waste of time and resources, we will no doubt have great difficulty imagining any value in the practice when we become adults. Moore tells a story of a young boy whose life was so structured. The child said: “Sometimes I think, like, since I’m a kid, I need to enjoy my life, but I don’t have time for that.” (Moore, pg. 101).
Allowing our children to have unstructured time, giving them space to experience the world around them without the constant need to be scheduled can give to them the permission they will need as adults to take time apart for their own continued mental, emotional and spiritual development.
Moore recognizes that each stage of our lives offers us less or more time, less or more opportunities to practice solitude. In our early years as adults, we often find that opportunities for self-care are few and far between. As we approach mid-life we can find spaces for such self-care and in our latter years we may find that space for such self-care to be too much. Once again, when solitude becomes something we find to be negative because it is either a waste of our time or because we have no choice but to be in solitude, then we miss the true purpose for its existence and practice as a path for our lives.
Dealing with the changing stages of our life will ever be a challenge. We will struggle to carve out time for self and not feel guilty for it through our busiest years with the demands of home, family, work and social involvements. We will struggle with the new found freedom of time as we find ourselves with more time for self-care yet may feel guilty for indulging ourselves. We will struggle with the over abundance of freedom of time as the outlets for our normal activities change and our mobility decreases. Every stage of our life will present us with moments of solitude. It is how we respond to these moments, it is how we manage these moments of solitude that will be critical to how we respond to the changing stages of our own life cycle and whether we can continue to find meaning and purpose in our life and be able to celebrate each stage of our life.
The practice of solitude as a path in life is meant to provide us with the opportunity to discover who we are, the gifts that we have been given and to be able to then move back into our community and offer ourselves to one another in service and care. The self-care we give ourselves in solitude is critical to the care we will be able to bring to others.
Jesus led a very busy life – especially the last three years! Yet it is clear that his understanding of and ability to grasp the meaning and purpose of his life and mission was fostered by his willingness to take the path of solitude. In those moments he connected with the One who sent him into the world. We also are encouraged to connect with the One who sent us into this world and that is the subject we will explore next week as we look at Solitude and the Presence of God.