It's no secret to those that know me that I would quite happily take up a life of wandering in the wilderness in the hopes of becoming some sort of spiritual guru. People would have to find me in a secluded cave where I would be clothed in a single loin cloth with a torso length beard eating roots and wild berries. And I would raise a wolf and name him Rafiki.
In fact, the first time I saw "Into The Wild" I became partially obsessed with the idea that I could perhaps be an elusive nomad, someone who could live without depending on interaction with other human beings.
This led me to eventually give prolonged solitude a test drive, and last year I went on holiday alone. Seven days by myself. For a week I didn't speak to another human being. I soon discovered that this made other people fairly uncomfortable and concerned about my mental well-being, because, well, it's just not the done thing.
Susan Cain explores this idea that we're not used to solitude in her popular talk, "The Power of Introverts". She explains that in the 20th century, as we have moved from living predominantly in small agricultural communities to cities of big business, we no longer live among those we've known our whole lives, but usually around those we've only known for a short time.
This has lead to a change in what we value in people. Where character had once been the most admired quality, more dynamic and immediate qualities like "magnetism" and "charisma" given the most attention as we moved into a culture of personality. Western societies have always favoured the man of action over the man of contemplation.
We want to know "How to Win Friends and Influence People", we want to appear engaging and we want to brand ourselves perfectly, but it is an exhausting default for us to live in. Blaise Pascal famously penned the words, "I have often said that the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."
I think he's right. I think we have forgotten the transcendent power of solitude and the way it forces us to eyeball our deceptions, our grief, our passions and our core beliefs.
We don't know how to switch off
I know of a certain pastor that often asks some of his young people to conduct personal experiments for a weekend. From a Friday night to the Sunday he asks the participants to simply sit alone with no external stimulation – no books, no screens, no pen and no paper. Just you and your own mind in silence for the better part of a weekend.
What he discovered is that the vast majority of participants would make it to about midnight on the Friday night and break down as they confronted, perhaps for the first time, how they really felt about themselves, about life and all the questions in between. We don't know how to just be anymore.
A recent international study found that New Zealand children were one of the most sleep deprived in the world, second only to the United States and this is largely due to an increased use of technology at night. The study found that the percentage of sleep deprived students at school was sitting around a staggering 65%.
All of this serves my introvert superiority complex nicely. I find it easy to sit by myself, to fill my mind with thoughts I find to be stimulating when people don't do the job. Books tend to have good stuff to say, people are a bit more hit and miss. But this is where solitude often shines a much needed light for an accurate diagnosis for what is really going on.
Because being alone is often just easier because you're not forced to face yourself in relationship with all the complexities that go with it. Solitude isn't just a breathing space from external expectation, but a time to reflect so that we can be in community better.
Solitude so that you're not as much of a jerk as you were before
So back to my loner retreat. Over the course of the week I found that there was a lot I had been feeling that I had also been ignoring, and surviving through. I suddenly realised I had been having a lot of hypothetical arguments in my head with hypothetical people, there was a lot I was sad about that happened to me in the months prior and a lot that I felt guilty about.
Without the constant barrage of media everything came into focus and I could choose to understand it properly and know what to do with it.
I had time to see that a lot of what I was angry about when it came to others, was simply because they had been pressing certain buttons, buttons that I didn't actually have to wear at all. As I worked through my own guilt and rediscovered my fundamental forgiveness it became increasingly obvious that I had no right to withhold the same forgiveness from anyone else.
And wounds that I had acquired didn't have to continue to sting in the same way, but heal and provide places of healing for those with scars looking a bit like mine.
Henri Nouwen, who's life battled in these trenches of the soul many a time says it better than anyone in his book, Out of Solitude:
Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger. Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals, that without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures. The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention.
Being alone is central to doing the together part well. It's the means to the ends to good community. True solitude isn't escapism.
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.
Sam Burrows' previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-burrows.html