The Dangers of Solitude
In the first message in this series, I introduced you to Solitude as a neglected path to God. I spoke briefly about some of the gifts that solitude can bring but also alluded to potential dangers. In the message today we will explore the dangers of solitude but in such a way as to encourage us to see that solitude – if understood correctly – can help us to deal with the dangers in such a way as to not cause us harm.
It is important to note that any path we take in life can have hidden dangers. We cannot predict our immediate future even if as Christians we can predict our ultimate future. Taking the path of solitude – a path not often taken in our modern age – will require us to be aware of any potential dangers so that we might follow this path and discover its positive benefits. As we begin this part of our study of solitude as a neglected path to God, I want us to consider again the words of the Shepherd’s Psalm written by a young man who experienced solitude in the care of his father’s sheep. He trusted that even when he was at his most vulnerable “in the valley of the shadow of death”, he would fear no evil for the Lord his God would be by his side. When we decide to walk the path of solitude in our lives, we need to remember that we may walk it without the presence of earthly companions but that our solitude is always in companionship with our God.
One of the first dangers of solitude that the author points out has to do with our fears. There is a lady I know whose husband passed away just over a year ago. She related to me that this was the first time in her whole life that she had lived on her own. She was an only child and married her childhood sweetheart. Her marriage lasted 50 years. As she related the story, she woke up one morning in her parents’ home and the next morning in her new home with her husband. The two of them shared most of their lives together even sharing their love of music. The adjustment for her has happened but not without some anxiety. Things that go bump in the night, sounds you hear that you never heard before; time by yourself that you never had before.
Our own understanding of solitude plays a large role in whether we might ever be able to practice it in our lives. Perhaps we see solitude as an unhealthy withdrawal from society; perhaps we have experienced times when we have been alone and have found it boring; perhaps it is our fear of being left alone in and of itself – believing somehow that if we separate ourselves from our community and social connections for any period of time that people will forget us or think us antisocial. There are certainly many times when we can find ourselves alone, but we need to ask whether those times can all be characterized as solitude.
Remember when I spoke about the wilderness and its place in Scripture. The wilderness described in the Bible is very much like any wilderness place that we might find today. It is a place that is devoid of creature comforts and often a place where no water or other sustenance can be found. Physically it is challenging. Spiritually it can be challenging as well. I also mentioned how people would go from their homes to the wilderness for an experience of solitude. They went there because it was a place devoid of distractions that could enable a person to focus. The Bible recognizes that being in a place of solitude can bring great danger. But the Bible ever affirms that it is a place for transformation: for regaining personal clarity, a sense of one’s life mission, and closeness with God.
When solitude is not a choice, solitude can be overwhelming. And that is one of the biggest distinctions that we need to make. The fear of loneliness – especially for people who already find themselves alone too often – is very real. We need to stop equating solitude with loneliness. Both are states in which a person is alone, but solitude is meant to be used as a description of a choice while loneliness is a description of a condition caused by circumstances that have isolated an individual from their social or family contacts. Of course, loneliness can even occur to people when they are physically present with others. For some people loneliness can be a sign of an internal emptiness.
Now it is true that community and community involvement are emphasized not only in the writings of the Bible but throughout all society. Social media is a part of most people’s lives and even if social media as found on devices is not part of someone’s life, they have other ways of being connected and staying connected. We even speak of how we become concerned when someone drops off social media. There was a commercial a while back about an older couple whose children were concerned that they were not on social media. How would their parents ever develop friendships and stay healthy? The commercial then shows the older couple off on trips with friends they have connected with in real time.
When solitude becomes involuntary, when it is no longer a choice we make then it ceases to be solitude in its best sense and really becomes something that can be destructive to our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual health. The very word solitude needs to have a fresh meaning, a new understanding. In examining the history of solitude as a path to God, Moore uncovered how solitude and community worked in tandem with each other. My visits to the convent in Toronto to stay at the Guest House is a wonderful example of how solitude and community are two paths that cross and intersect. There are ordered times of prayer, worship and celebration of the sacraments that mark the day and call people to a sense of the passage of time and an appreciation for every moment of the day; but these ordered times are also marked by times when the people will spend time by themselves in study, prayer, reflection and other tasks which can be done as solo activities. Silence and speech, time together and time apart can all contribute to leading us to a greater sense of who we are individually and collectively.
But when solitude lacks purpose or direction, it can bring the danger of loneliness, isolation and depression. So how do we safeguard ourselves against such dangers? First Moore suggests that if we are serious about incorporating a greater degree of solitude into our spiritual life that we give thought to seeking out a spiritual director. In the Celtic tradition this person is called a “soul friend”. It is someone whom we trust to keep us focused in our times of solitude. Second we are to keep connected to a community of faith. Having the support of a caring community – be it a few individuals within the larger group or the group itself – will help us stay focused and not lose ourselves in an unhealthy way, Third, it is worthwhile to consider finding a place to go on a retreat. It may only be for a weekend or three to four days. Your first experience may be a little terrifying but give it a chance and you may be pleasantly surprised. And the final safeguard is simply to maintain a normal life in the world. When solitude is a part of our life, when it finds its value it will help to inform our life in its other aspects. Integration of all parts of our life is the key to a healthy mind and spirit. So, I encourage you to see solitude as a positive path; I encourage you to understand the term in a new way and to open yourself to the possibilities solitude can bring.
Next time, we will look at the healing power of solitude.