My phone’s calendar notification appeared, and I remembered too late that I should have deleted this event. October 24 comes labeled “Our Anniversary,” but for the first time in ten years, it wasn’t true.
In the fall of 2019, my now ex-wife and I were still married but the slow train wreck of divorce had been put in motion. She had filed the paperwork and we were in the waiting period before it could become official in Washington State. The date of our wedding came and went with no gifts, no flowers, no celebration of God’s faithfulness over the years. In January, her lawyer’s office called to say the court had processed everything. When it was over, I took off my wedding ring, which I’d stubbornly kept wearing until that moment.
Less than two months later, with the ghost of the ring still visible on my finger, the onset of the pandemic caused the music of everyday life to stop. Social circles narrowed. Major decisions were no longer pressing. Planned events melted from the calendar. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t drown out the noise of grief and loss by tuning in to the tumult of other things. The reminders came—and continue to come—day after day, whether they were on my calendar or not.
In his little book Out of Solitude, Henri Nouwen tells us that, like Jesus, we should embrace time alone to remind ourselves of our value and purpose for being: “Jesus went to a lonely place to pray, that is, to grow in the awareness that all the power he had was given to him; that all the words he spoke came from his Father; and that all the works he did were not really his, but the works of the One who had sent him.” Without such a place, Nouwen warns, we are prone to be destructive. In the absence of a quiet center we fidget and try to fix, trying to return to “normal.”
Nouwen makes a distinction between solitude and loneliness. When we are alone and we hate it, we feel a lack that we anxiously fill with noise and activity. Our aloneness hardens into loneliness. In solitude, by contrast, we have the fulfilling, quiet center that Jesus had when he retreated from the crowds to be with his father. Thrown into increasing isolation this year, I have struggled to find something resembling that quiet center. I want to run away from isolation and into distractions: to watch something, to buy something, to post something on social media and wait for the tiny, never-quite-satisfying hit of people’s reactions. I especially want to text or call someone to get them to solve my loneliness problem.
We are meant for community, but in those moments it isn’t real community that I want. I want someone I can use as a prop to distract me from myself. When I use another person as a diversion—just like anything else—the connection is going to be ultimately unfulfilling. I’m acting out of an anxious loneliness rather than a calm solitude.
Saturdays have often been the times of greatest struggle for me. On a day that most people spend with their loved ones, I spend it alone. And when I have no urgent work to accomplish, by midafternoon fears, doubts, and regrets come knocking. Because they’re rarely easy to host, these days also seem to be when the real work of moving from loneliness to solitude is done. Unfulfilled by distractions, I have no choice but to pay attention to what I am feeling, to confront what is going on inside. So I wait, ready for what God is about to show me:
The dryer is humming.
The refrigerator is buzzing.
Isn’t it time to replace the smoke detectors?
I’ll go for a walk.
Maybe listen to a podcast?
I’ll look for one to download.
Oh, let me check Twitter.
But just once, though.
This restlessness continues for a few minutes, or many, until I can finally face the thoughts I want to escape: That because I did my best, God should not have allowed me to fail so spectacularly. That since I’ve been rejected I’m too damaged now to be of much use to anyone. That I have no control over this grieving, and the amount of sadness and disorientation I feel at this moment is the way it could be for a very long time, maybe the rest of my life.
Only when I force myself past the distractions and acknowledge the painful thoughts can I then join Jesus in the lonely place and talk to him about them.
We have to make war on our distractions to go with Jesus to the lonely place, but we are not meant to stay there. We are meant to act again, to re-engage. The monk Thomas Merton ends his book Thoughts in Solitude by writing that the purpose of solitude is to learn to love other people with the love of God. When this happens, “We can go out to them without vanity and without complacency, loving them with something of the purity and gentleness and hiddenness of God’s love for us. This is the true fruit and the true purpose of Christian solitude.”
When I hear debates about how fast to return to “normal” during this pandemic, I think about Blaise Pascal’s thought that “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own room.” This is not the only factor in these debates, of course, but it is in there somewhere. We don’t like to be unoccupied. We don’t like our plans to be put on hold or canceled. Being alone with ourselves feels like falling off a cliff. It’s terrifying to not know how far we will have to fall, so we surround ourselves with others in anxious occupations. But we need this fall to reach solitude. We can act purposefully when we have been assured by God that we have nothing to prove, and we can give and receive love from others when we are not looking to them to keep us from loneliness, to give the love only God can provide.
I have empty spaces in my calendar, now. I have empty spaces in my life. Because they used to be filled, I feel the emptiness as a void, like the imprint on my finger where my wedding ring used to be. Knowing that distracting myself won’t fill the void, I can only go out to the lonely place where Jesus is. There I sit with him and wait until I can follow him into the crowd again.
Cover image by JESHOOTS.COM.