As human beings, we are social creatures. We are wired for and enjoy being together. Understanding the importance of relationships, we tend to thrive on interaction. Our bodies and our minds are healthier when we’re connected with others.
But that’s not the whole story. As much as we crave companionship, there’s another important aspect to our well-being: the need to be alone.
This idea might initially scare many of us. We don’t want to be left out. What if we get bored? Or, even worse, what if we feel lonely?
Yet, as theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich so beautifully explained, “Our language . . . has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory. . . .”
Today, this glorious solitude has never been more important. In a world that seems to be spinning faster by the second, we’ve invented infinite ways to save time and stay connected. And we’ve somehow made ourselves busier and created distance.
It’s gotten complicated. Schedules go from bell to bell. We’re more turned on and tuned in than ever. Sights, sounds, and stimuli seem to come at us around the clock.
We are inundated at an almost diabolical velocity with news, and videos and photos of other people’s lives, other people’s dinners, and other people’s kids and cats. We hustle to soccer practices and piano lessons, fill our calendars, make commitments, give our attention to how-to’s and gotta-haves. And it’s 24/7.
With everyone and everything crashing at us constantly, with such tenacity, how is it possible to remember who we are? What we’re here for? What matters?
In the cacophony and confusion, how do we hear our own voice? How do we connect to our solitary yet mighty self — our curious, conscious heart, our brilliant brain, and the bundles of atoms knit into our skin — let alone make sense of everything that’s coming in?
To find ourselves, we must find the time for seeking out and creating solitude.
Solitude is not an exile or an exit. It’s an invitation. To unfold. To loosen time’s grasp. To clear some space. To redirect attention.
Solitude may start with the simple practice of closing your eyes, taking a breath, then opening to a new direction. This could lead to a walk. Then, a walk without a phone.
It can show up in mornings, in music, in meditation. On a bus ride, in the car, at the coffee shop. In a brief 20 minutes, you can become a different — and maybe better? — person.
Just because you are alone.
Solitude can often be found in a place. Many believe its effects intensify outdoors. In the words of John Muir:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you,
and the storms their energy,
while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
What a beautiful thing: solitude heightening your senses, intimately grounding you through sights, smells, and sounds to the world around you. You witness a different glow of summer’s sunset; you hear your own wistful, earthy exhale of the fall.
Often perceived as stillness, solitude may seem quiet, as though things have stopped and nothing really is happening, but there is so much at work.
In a few moments by yourself, your mind may open, your soul may inexplicably expand. Breath deepens. Blood pressure lowers. Cells regenerate.
Magically, knots seem to untangle. Riddles unravel. Evasive, secret things that have been distant come near. Cloudy thoughts become crystal clear and then . . . creativity sparks. Occasionally, goosebumps appear.
Peace. Quietude. Stillness. Reverie. Call it what you will, solitude is how, in today’s world, we create the much-needed space for ongoing reflection. This is the essence for knowing who we are, which is some of life’s most formative and important work.
As we move into the holidays, my hope is that you remember you are empowered to seek out, protect, and nourish your solitude. Start small. Find moments to contemplate the nothingness. Schedule time into your day, and guard it.
Don’t be afraid to be selfish. Say no to the things that take you away from you. Purposely try to check out of the hustle and bustle. Take every opportunity you can to remember and appreciate who you are, while imagining who you can become.
This is yours, this gift of glorious solitude.