Today I am writing late after a long but good day at a meet up for owners of Papillon dogs. Saturdays are usually my time to be alone and spend time with Judy and our dogs doing as little as possible. I use them to recharge. I’m getting a lot more social interaction this weekend and that is not a bad thing, but every so often I take the time to break away to spend a bit of time alone, usually with my dogs Izzy and Pierre sitting on my lap. Both happen to be quite sensitive and know when having them there is therapeutic for me.
Since Thursday when I walked the Antietam battlefield I have been musing on the value of solitude and the importance that it has in my life. Paul Tillich wrote: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s 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.”
I am a natural introvert, a thinker, and soldier, who has found his vocation as a priest, and scholar. I think had I been born 800 years ago that I could have easily been a scholastic warrior monk. Thus I live in a world that is foreign to many people. I value community, friendship, and the camaraderie found in some parts of the military. I have learned over the years to mix rather well in social settings, I stay very busy, and I am bombarded with many issues on a daily basis at work as well as by having to know what is going on in the nation and world because of what I do.
I also know what I need, in the words of Elwood Blues, to “live, thrive, and survive,” and one of those things is solitude, which at means for me, venturing from the busyness and chaos of life, and of being inundated by an often toxic stew of nonstop information which dulls the senses. I have to have times of solitude in order to survive, but for much of my life I tried to fill those times alone by doing other doing things, even good things like praying the Daily Office or reading scripture, rather than actually being alone with myself.
Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. Loneliness, usually denotes a sense of, pain, abandonment, and often friendlessness, or even being unloved or unlovable. People can be terribly lonely even in a room full of people. There have been times in life, especially in my journey since returning from Iraq in 2008 that I felt the pain and despair of loneliness even when surrounded by people. I also know what it is like to have people who I believed were friends abandon me. But that has nothing to do with being alone or knowing the richness of solitude.
Everyday try to disconnect from people, social media, and other distractions in order to be alone with my thoughts. This can be dangerous as because in solitude we are quite often faced not by the chaos of what is outside of us, but the chaos, and the unresolved conflicts within us. Being alone and seeking solitude is so disquieting at times that many people want to flee from it, because the outer chaos can be used as a shield to mask us from the disquiet within. Thus it takes a certain amount of discipline to remain in solitude, especially in those times when our own demons of fear, anxiety, disappointment, failure, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulses seek to overwhelm us.
Yesterday I wrote about my 17 mile walk through the Antietam battlefield and I think that was one of the most rich times of solitude that I have had in a long time because it was much longer than what I usually get. It was punctuated with a chat with an 88 year old resident of the area who was coming up the trail from the Burnside Bridge with his fishing pole in hand. It was an interesting encounter because during the first 11 miles or so of the walk I had come across very few people and most of them seemed to be in a hurry. But that seems to be the case almost everywhere.
But this gentleman was fascinating, and though I was intent on getting to the bridge, I knew that I had to remain. I listened as he told me about some the the changes in the area since he was a child, homes and barns that no longer existed except as ruins, the people who lived in them, and how as a child he would fish or hunt along the creek. When he found out that I was a in the military and also a historian he lit up. He told me about his and his son’s military experiences, and then he told me about his visit as a child to Gettysburg in 1938 on the occasion of the dedication of the Peace Monument. He described the elderly veterans of North and South, as well as seeing President Franklin Roosevelt deliver his speech on that day. Of course I have read about that event, and seen pictures and newsreel footage of it, but I had never talked to an eyewitness, and he may be the only eyewitness that I will ever meet. My solitude was was enriched. I was reminded of the words of C. S. Lewis who observed, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” As we parted, he walking back toward the new Burnside Bridge and me heading to the site where Burnside’s regiments threw themselves across the old bridge in the face of murderous Confederate fire, he said, “I hope to see you next year,” and I told him I hope so too, and yes I meant it. I then continued my walk all the while contemplating what happened on the battlefield, imagining what it had to be like for those soldiers, and also contemplating my own life. It was liberating.
Solitude is important for many reasons, but it is especially important for leaders at any level, or those who care for others. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a historian as well as devotee of the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a wise man and he wrote “It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.” Yes it is possible to withdraw and to seek solitude, but it is also hard, yet necessary. General Mattis noted:
“Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise. You have some external stimulus, then you go back to your experience, your education, and you see what needs to be done.”
Solitude is a good thing. It is often, at least for me, an uncomfortable time as I wrestle with my inner demons, but in those times of inner struggle I often discover truths about myself as well as the world around me, sometimes coming in the form of old men who enter my solitude and enrich my life. The two, solitude and companionship on the journey are import, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
I hope that this makes some sense as I don’t often write articles like this, but as I thought about it today I realized that I ought to write about it, if for nothing else than not writing about the Devil’s Triangle of any of the various crises facing all of us. Sometimes it is important to step away for a time in order to know what to do.
Have a great day and until tomorrow,