“Language…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.” One is toxic. The other is life giving.” – Theologian Paul Tillich
Since the middle part of this pandemic when schools returned to session, our son has been mired in virtual learning. Thankfully, we have in-laws who live within a reasonable drive from our home, so my wife has been taking my son to her parents’ house every week so that my mother-in-law can help with virtual school. It has been a total blessing for my son, my wife and my in-laws. My mother-in-law (a former teacher) gets to spend precious time with her grandson. My son gets some much needed oversight as he works through the challenge of learning on a computer screen for eight hours a day. And, it gives my wife some breathing room to do her own work. There has been lots of upside to the arrangement. Even for me, left at home to my own devices for half the week, there have been some positives. But what this experience has really done is forced me to revisit what it’s like being alone.
I’ve been alone a lot in my life, and I have been lonely a lot in my life as well, and I do believe that is a distinction worth making. Being alone (or having solitude) is something we all have to varying degrees all the time. Some people love it. There are plenty of times in my life where I’ve been great at being along. I’d go to movies alone, take a book or magazine to a restaurant and eat alone, or sometimes take in a ballgame alone. I appreciate people who are comfortable enough with themselves to simply be alone.
Loneliness, however, is something very different. There have been plenty of other times in my life when I was lonely. I was lonely as a teen. I was at various times trying to be older than I was (I couldn’t wait to be an adult for some reason) or younger than I was (nostalgia, at 15? Really?) I was among so many people that looked and acted and lived just as I did, but I rarely felt like I belonged. Belonging is an amazing feeling, especially when it is due to who we are and not just what we have. There’s belonging in a superficial way, like to a country club; and there’s belonging in a deep way, like to a men’s group. In either instance, finding out why you belong can be an enormously uplifting moment for one’s soul. Belonging can go a long way towards stamping out loneliness.
My time living in New York City was the perfect example. I kind of enjoyed being alone, sequestered from the craziness of the city. But the line was very thin and it was easy to tip into loneliness with so much going on around me. It was hard to meet friends, it was hard to keep friends. It was hard to develop relationships. I am shy, which doesn’t help. It was also a time in my life where I was really far from God. I couldn’t belong because I didn’t know what I wanted to belong to.
What I’ve learned slowly, and the hard way, is that with Jesus, we all belong. Therefore, if we choose Him, we don’t have to be lonely.
And it’s worth pointing out that Jesus wasn’t afraid to be alone. There are lots of times throughout the Bible where Jesus purposely finds solitude for himself.
“As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead across to Bethsaida while He dismissed the congregation. After sending them off, He climbed a mountain to pray.” – Mark 6:45-46 MSG
The “meal” that Mark refers to in this passage is the famous Loaves and Fishes story in the Bible. Imagine the strength of faith it must have taken for Jesus to perform this act of service to so many people. He needed to recover his strength, because right after He climbs the mountain to pray He walks on water to a boat where his disciples are caught in a storm and He calms the waters around them.
“While it was still night, way before dawn, He got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, ‘Everybody’s looking for you.’” – Mark 1:35-39 MSG
Just before this verse in Mark, Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law, and then many “sick and afflicted” people after that. After Simon finds him praying Jesus goes throughout Galilee, preaching and healing. He heals a leper, who spreads the word of Jesus’ work throughout the city, causing Jesus to be overwhelmed by attention. It was a moment that Jesus must have known was coming, but rather than stop it, or stop his work, He instead chose to strengthen himself further for the work to come.
“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” – Luke 6:12 NIV
After He returns from praying He chooses his 12 apostles from his group of disciples. If there is a bigger example of how He develops the most important relationships of his life through prayer in solitude I can’t think of it.
The Death of a Friend
“When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. ‘ – Matthew 14:13
At maybe the most trying time of his life, after the beheading of John the Baptist, He retreats to solitude to pray. When He emerges, He feeds the 5000.
These are but a few of the multitude of examples, and all of them show the strength that Jesus is able to draw on by being alone. But He is never lonely, because He has such strength in relationships: with his disciples, with his followers, and most importantly, with his father.
Being alone can give us an enormous amount of energy if we use it to connect with the things in our life that matter. That enrich our souls and nourish our minds and spirits. Use alone time to connect with your wife, with your passion, with your work, with yourself. But most importantly, with your higher power.
You won’t be able to take on the sins of the whole world, but you will be able to take on challenges bigger than you ever thought possible.