“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 air conditioned Fred Myer 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. Loneliness can be defined not simply as a state of being separated from others, but essentially as a state of being separated from oneself. Solitude is similar - you can be separated from others, but entirely with yourself. 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 into reactivity to the constant deluge of stimuli and information.
Engagement with the “burning issues of our time” is necessary. It is certainly an option, and one I’ve chosen much of my life, to be ignorant of injustice and apathetic toward the suffering of black, brown and LGBT friends, or the poor and vulnerable who lack adequate healthcare, but I can’t unsee or unfeel what my eyes and heart now testify.
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?
"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." - Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out
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 that others 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, but always from an exterior plain that never takes root in our soul, psyche, emotion and body.
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.” 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. These principles strip our ego, 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 stay the full two nights and three days? Is there something wrong with me? 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 here, from the place of deep solitude and self-withness, 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 drinking water from a constant stream, bearing fruit, giving shade providing rest for others in season and out.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
P.S. You can find Reaching Out, Adam's Return and other books on our Resources Page at innerworkcommunity.org