Being alone. For some, it's painful. For some, glorious. And for some, it's both.
The New York Times recently featured a curious article about French President Nicolas Sarkozy. In contrast to his more intellectual predecessors, he doesn't dwell in the abstract realm of ideology. He's concerned about the economy and has been nudging the French to "Work more and think less."
"How absurd to say that we should think less!" said Alan Finkielkraut. philosopher, writer, professor and radio show host. "If you have a chance to consecrate your life to thinking, you work all the time, even in your sleep. Thinking requires setbacks, suffering, a lot of sweat."
The French have a lovely tradition of ponderous leisure — they have a legally mandated 35-hour cap on their work week, 2-hour lunch breaks, and nearly everyone is expected (dare I say required?) to cut bait for the entire month of August and spend time relaxing in the Alps or on the Mediterranean Sea.
It is against this cultural backdrop — one that celebrates leisure, beauty and a rich intellectual life — that one of President Sarkozy's habits recently came under attack.
"Western civilization, in its best sense, was born with the promenade," Mr. Finkielkraut said on a late night television show, noting that thinkers like Aristotle, Heidegger and Rimbaud all were walkers. "Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act. Jogging — it is management of the body."
"It's a change of rhythm — it's called Jimmy Carter," said a guest on the show, reminding viewers of the American president who brought jogging into the White House.
"And Bill Clinton," said another.
Now I couldn't help but chuckle as I read this article — leave it to the French to criticize jogging. As the last kid to come panting around the track during all those years of school, I can't help but feel a little giddy when jogging comes under fire. Jogging never was one of my favorite pastimes.
But walking is. I can meander for miles with the baby on my back, staring and buildings and nature, letting thoughts come and go, sorting through the chaos in my heart. Walking doesn't hurt and it makes me feel refreshed, relaxed and energized.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of walking is that it gives me an opportunity to be alone. I need these quiet moments as much for myself as for those I care for. Ironically, it is my children — greatest impediments to solitude that they are — who have taught me to crave it and carve some out every single day.
I think that part of why Americans are often reluctant to take long, meandering walks is because many of us just don't enjoy solitude. We associate it with being alone and anonymous at the movies, or dining solo amongst the chattering couples.
I evaded solitude for years. In fact, I was convinced that I was not cut out to be a writer because of my extrovert tendencies. Give me Grand Central Station at rush hour, a bustling farmer's market, the tight-knit and endlessly entertaining seminary community where I lived for three years. But a quiet room by myself? No thank you.
Or at least that was what I used to say before I had children, before I learned how much I needed to begin my morning slowly with a cup of coffee, before I discovered how sweet it is to close each day with "a quiet cap," seated in the glider in a peacefully candle-lit room, a steamy cup of honey-milk warming my hands.
I initially imagined that I'd use this time to pray for the people that I'd promised to remember — and sometimes names do come. But other days, when I'm emotionally, physically and spiritually spent from the rigors of chasing a toddler and tending to a 6-year-old, caring for my hubby and home and building a career in the midst of everything, I find that when I finally get a moment to sit by myself and let the thoughts come, my overwhelming desire is just to say, "Thank You."
In Praise of Moodling
A few moments of intentional quiet at the beginning and end each day does seem to transform the in-between time. It seeps into my interactions with others — especially with my husband and daughters — and helps me to stay rooted as life swirls around and within me.
Not only does quiet seem to bring peace, but it is also fertile soil for creative work. Near the top of my current "most beloved book list" is Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want to Write. Originally published in 1938, the book has irresistible chapters such as "Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It For Their Writing" and "You Do Not Know What Is In You — The Inexhaustible Fountain of Ideas."
Ueland uses a term I've never heard before which seems to get to the heart of things. The term is "moodling" and it denotes creative and life-giving solitude.
She describes it this way:
So you see the imagination needs moodling — long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: "I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget." But they have no big, slow ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.
It amazes me how the things we need most often seem elusive or even undesirable. But solitude is possible — I'd dare say necessary — to anyone who wants to live creatively and peacefully.
Sometimes the very idea of silence can make us cringe because it can force an encounter with truths about our life and ourselves that we might not feel ready for. Unnamed agonies can keep us running blind. But we do need a safe space to unwrap our wounds — and to let the healing begin.
A friend of mine from an alcoholic family told me that for years he couldn't bear to be alone. It took him years — and much soul work in ACOA meetings — for him to begin to tell the truth about his own life. Only after he began to come to terms with his experiences did he begin to welcome the quiet.
We might feel like we want to run from loneliness. But it is only after we realize that loneliness and solitude are two sides of the same coin — a coin we can choose to flip — that we begin to find our way toward wholeness.
As the theologian Paul Tillich said, "Our language has widely sensed the two sides of being alone. It is 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."
Sometimes we just need to slow down and listen — to open ourselves to the possibilities hidden in the leftover moments of our day.
As Daniel Ladinsky wrote in his poem, "Absolutely Clear":
Don't surrender your loneliness
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight,
Has made my eyes so soft,
My need of God
Copyright 2007 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.