“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. “ — Paul Tillich
While my husband is in his classes, learning the next echelon of leadership within the military, I am been alone. I am reading and writing and trying not to feel the pain of this loneliness, but Tillich’s wisdom rings all to true. I find myself in this new and place where nothing is familiar. The landscape is different. The climate is strange and I find myself in this new community in which I feel like a stranger. Or as Stanley Hauerwas might say, I am a resident alien.
I am not on the move. I am here in this place.
When only ten days ago, there was a different kind of solitude that marked my days. For just four days, between Pennsylvania and Kansas, I found myself in solitude on the road — and it was glorious. Just me and my little Prius on the road. My parents (among others) had expressed concern about this plan. They were not sure it was wise for a young woman to travel alone. They feared I might be lonely.
I assured them that I would be stopping to spend nights with dear friends. I would extend my trip to make time for these visits with these dear friends. I would not be totally alone. I wasn’t. I got to eat and walk and talk with these dear friends after hours on the road all by myself. Theses a good thing. It was reassuring for my parents to hear because loneliness is a bad thing. This fact even made the news last week. 72% of people in the United States of America feel isolated. The facts and figures of this study are suspiciously absent from the reports that I’ve found, but the word isolation is not. It is repeated in every article. we are isolated from ourselves and each other. This is what defines our loneliness.
It is not news, however. It is a conclusion that was drawn way back when in 2012 when this article appeared in The Atlantic concluding:
Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.
Isolation or even disconnection is not what I feel on the road. Behind the wheel, careening down the highway, belting out Dixie Chicks lyrics, I don’t feel disconnected from my community or my neighbor, but quite the opposite. I feel connected. I feel like the world is so big and beautiful and there is so much possibility. With every song that comes on the radio, I am flooded with memories of people and places that I have loved. I can’t help but giggle at the wonder of it all.
When my throat has gone hoarse and there is nothing but static on the radio, I roll down the windows and open my heart to pray. Jesus makes a big to do about going to find a quiet place to pray. Or at least, that’s how we think about it. We are the ones that are struggle with the silence and perhaps even the isolation, not Jesus. There is no struggle in him. No fanfare as he withdraws to a deserted place to pray (Luke 5:16, NRSV). He is not isolated, though he may be alone. He does this several more times before he tells anyone how they ought to pray. That’s when he tells them not to forget about themselves. This isn’t a chance to zone out but a chance to see yourself as a part of God’s transformative power.
Like me, I imagine that Jesus needs a little space for this. This is no small potatoes, after all. He needs that time away to sort though all of the thoughts in his head, to be grateful and even to wonder about what might be ahead if he can ever be part of God’s transformation. Even if he doesn’t need that space, I do. Jesus might know his place but I have some questions. So I’ll take the empty road snaking through at the mountains or the deserted road that cuts through a town with empty store fronts to reconnect with God.
There is glory in this. Tillich is right. In this world, where there always seems to be someone grabbing for our attention — something that is apparently being called an attention economy — there is a certain graciousness to allowing ourselves be alone with our own thoughts and questions. It can be overwhelming, as it feels now that I am settled in one place with too much time to think and ponder by myself. It can surely be painful but there is a certain glory in it — a glory I struggle to name but one I have seen on the road.