“The movement from loneliness to solitude is not a movement of growing withdrawal but is instead a movement toward a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time. The movement from loneliness to solitude can make it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.”
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
I’ve just arrived back from a planned three-day retreat, which I cut short by a day and a half. Personal retreats are a part of my “rule of life” and a way I’ve found to reconnect with my true self and True Self. In the past I’ve entered retreats how one may enter an airconditioned grocery store on a humid Summer day, but this retreat I entered how I enter the dentist – I need to be here, but I don’t want to be here, and how numb will I be when I leave?
Being back from my retreat it is clear that I have been existing for months more in a state of loneliness than in solitude. Most of my days are spent alone, yet I end each day feeling as though I’ve been present to everyone’s needs except my own. Loneliness is not simply a state of being separated from others, but essentially a state of being separated from oneself.
Solitude is conversely similar – one can be separated from others, but entirely with oneself. In our loneliness we anxiously search for presence to arrive externally in the form of a friend, a guide, a new boss, a new job, a second messiah or the same a second time. However, in our solitude we descend into our lives, into our realities, and into an eternal moment where True Presences awaits. Loneliness and solitude have less to do with external relationships and everything to do with the primary internal relationship.
These past months have been hard: extended hours working alone, limited contact with anyone and high output with little boundaries between work and home. Along with many others, I’ve been thrown in the deep end of the conversation around race and systemic injustice, and this has been wonderfully disruptive, but if I’m honest, with each hour, each Instagram post and each breaking news of another black body being brutalized, or another few thousand human beings pronounced dead; I find myself moving further from my core and further into reactivity to the constant deluge of stimuli and information.
Engagement with the “burning issues of our time” is necessary. To be ignorant of injustice and apathetic toward those who suffer the effects, has certainly been an option in the past—I know because I chose that path for much of my life. But, now, I can’t unsee or unfeel what my eyes and heart now testify.
I cannot unsee the poverty of former logging towns like rural Willamina, Oregon, or the gentrification in the inner city of my home town, Knoxville, Tennessee. I cannot unsee the segregation of church communities I’ve attended or pastored. I cannot unfeel the sadness for my sisters and brothers who’ve had to hide, repress and deny much of themselves in order to belong and be accepted by their faith community. And I cannot unsee the white supremacy in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
These realities and many more disrupt and unsettle me, and they initially prod me into loneliness because I do not know how to be present to them and connected to myself. Solitude has been a refuge for my own healing, so the suffering of others tempts me toward absence rather than a deepening presence.
This has brought me to the question: What does contemplation have to say about injustice? Where does the contemplative stream and the social justice stream converge, and if they were to meet, what would they have to talk about? Contemplative spirituality is my oldest friend, and social justice is a new friend I’m only now getting to know. They are very different friends so how can I live in relationship with both and stay true to the person God has created me to be?
As Henri Nouwen expressed it in Reaching Out, “The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to a quick, often spastic, reaction which makes us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly ‘formulate,’ give form to, a response that is really our own.” (Nouwen, 34)1
Actions birthed out of loneliness and solitude can look identical on the surface, but have very different impacts both internally and socially. Loneliness seeks to fill its lacking with action, while solitude acts out of the overflow from its center. Loneliness seeks acceptance, and avoids rejection through shallow exterior displays of solidarity, and solitude is moved from its internal solidarity into long term action. Loneliness manufactures the image it wants others to perceive, solitude is not concerned with perception, because it lives congruently from within on behalf of others.
Most of what I’ve seen from institutions, corporations and churches has been an “anxious response.” The social environment has changed and in order to not be left in the fray these groups have reacted with little introspection, thoughtfulness or confession. I’m certainly guilty of this—It leads to dissonance and a divorce within that wants things to be different, but doesn’t want to change too much – like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire trying to be all things to all people, always putting on the appropriate mask for each occasion, and never addressing the deeper convictions or possibilities for transformation.
How do we “convert our fearful reactions into a loving response”?
First, as Nouwen writes, we must arrive at the resolution, that “we probably shall never reach the moment of ‘pure action,’ and it even can be questioned how realistic or healthy it is to make that our goal.” (Nouwen, 34) This is difficult in cancel-culture where both actions and motives are parsed out so thoroughly, but we must have the courage to speak, and the courage to not speak, and then the courage to speak again.
Second, we must work toward the conclusions Richard Rohr comes to in Adam’s Return: 1) life is hard, 2) you are not that important, 3) your life is not about you, 4) you are not in control, and 5) you are going to die.2
These principles strip our ego-self, the bondage to our impression management, and allow us to move toward our center, and true self. Here in this place of solitude we are able to 1) live in the tensions and paradoxes of life, 2) step into our God-given importance, 3) live in service to those suffering, 4) exist within and seek change in places we have little individual control over, and 5) give our single life to the collective good as long as we are alive.
Last, we must create space to enter solitude, which may very simply be space to feel the superficiality of our loneliness. As I packed up to come home, I wondered what good my retreat had been. Was I unable to be by myself?
Was I able to exist in a space with no output? Why was I not able to complete the full retreat? I can see now that it was enough for me to feel the crushing weight of my loneliness, and meet myself again. You see, our true self, the imago dei, the inner light knows very well how to love our neighbor, how to call out injustice when we see it, and how to love others as we love ourselves – we do not need to train this part of ourselves.
When we live from the place of solitude and presence, our protests can come from our gut and not just our throats, our stances can be rooted in the earth rather than the changing of the winds, and our actions toward justice will beget justice, like a tree planted near a constant stream, bearing fruit, giving shade, and providing rest for others in season and out.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,