Solitude on the Road

“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.

Talking in Church

After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she dragged us to church. It felt like she was pulling us by our ears with one hand and spitting in the palm of the other to smooth out my brother’s hair. That’s not how it happened, of course. It is simply what remains from those first few years of sitting uncomfortably in a pew.

We didn’t do much sitting in those pews. In the mere 15 minutes we were in the worship service, before we departed for Sunday School, we would writhe and squirm. I would draw all over whatever was in the pew racks with the little pencils that seemed to be just my size. But, I was not allowed to sit on the floor and use the pew as a desk. My mother’s index finger chastised me for it. I was to sit still and be quiet.

There was no talking in church.

In many congregations, this is still true. There may be no sign on the sanctuary wall to dictate this rule but it is a value deeply held by those who were also chastised by their mother’s stern index finger. And so, the structure of the worship service does not engage the worshipper in a conversation but invites them to sit in a quiet place and listen. We don’t touch each other. We don’t know anything about each other’s lives. We listen to the preacher.

I get to be that person. I get to speak because I am entrusted to preach.

All other sounds are silenced unless someone’s phone happens to ring and then there is the sudden jolt of a reminder that there is such a thing as relationship.

But, otherwise, you are alone in that pew. You do not engage. You listen.

The architecture in most sanctuaries are designed for this. There is no soft reminder in that pew that to love your neighbor is to love yourself. There is only the assertion that you should face front and pay attention. If you do try to talk to the person next to you, it strains the neck. The wooden board arrests your back in one position so that you can only yield to its rigidity and face forward. You must not speak but listen.

Fingers are wagged at you if you dare to interrupt the silence. And it’s not your mother, this time. The sad part of this is: you came looking for community. It’s the primary reason that people come to church and it’s the reason that most people stay. The tenets of the faith are not as important as the connection that we find because most of us are lonely. We live alone. We live faraway from family and sometimes even friends. No one hugs us. No one listens to what happened in our day. We come to church looking for a place where we can be loved. We come to share our lives out loud and all the church does is call for quiet.

My mom shushed because that’s how she was raised. She was mimicking her parents and probably didn’t want to appear to have raised wretched children. There’s some pride there but my mom also came back to church because she was looking for something. She was looking for an answer to why terrible things happen. She wanted to know why she was going to die and she wanted to know that her kids were going to be OK. (My insistence that the pew was a really good desk did not ease that.) The minister talked to her a lot. He was at our house often but I don’t remember a single person talking to her in the pews.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had. I wonder if she would have felt less lonely about this impending doom. I wonder what would have happened if the worship was structured in such a way where she got the chance to speak. She might not choose to say anything. That’s fine. But, what if she risked it? What if she voiced her question aloud in the prayers? Or what if the person in the pew beside her asked a similar question when they were talking about the Bible passage for that day? What would have changed? What would have been different?

Those are my questions. That’s what I wonder every week as worship is about to begin. I know that every person in that sanctuary came to church with something on their heart. It could be a joy. It could be a sorrow or an impossible question. I may never know what those things are but they came to church because they needed someone to hear it. God will but they didn’t need to come to church for that thing to be heard. They came to church because they wanted to be less alone. I won’t be the one to shush them. I may not even be the with an answers but I’ll give them a space to speak.

I’ll always encourage talking in church.