Monday, February 02, 2009

Making Room For Solitude - Shirin Taber

Ever feel like someone's been in your head? That's how I felt when I read this article...right down to the working with college student thing...minus the whole toddler, husband thing.

I find myself wishing that a) I could communicate my thoughts on this as clearly and had written the article and b) I could live it better in "real" life.

Making Room for Solitude

by Shirin Taber

“My life is crazy busy right now,” a friend recently emailed me. Aren’t we all? I thought. Many Americans these days live hectic and frantic lives. We tell ourselves things like, Run. Push harder. Don’t be a loser. We no longer know how to give ourselves the permission to rest or do something for ourselves. In our drive for perfection, we’re working what feels like 24/7 to bring our own lives under absolute control; employment, paying bills, grocery shopping, laundry, 300 emails, home repairs, church, volunteering, a friend in need, in-laws to satisfy, a baby who won’t sleep through the night … Am I describing your world yet? If not, I will be, in the blink of an eye. A child becomes a teenager. The teenager becomes an adult. And the adult has no time for herself. But it wasn’t always this way.

One of the things I treasured about working with students as a university chaplain on three different continents was their capacity to disengage from the real world to do something meaningful for themselves. When I’d visit students in their dorm rooms or college apartments, they’d often have their stash of watercolors, sketching pencils or journals strewn about their living space. It didn’t mean they were taking an art class.

These folks intuitively knew how to unwind and get in touch with life on a different plane. They collected music and literature, spending an entire weekend polishing off a novel or mixing CDs. They took tons of photographs and created digital movies. They baked and experimented with recipes. They made time for museums, film festivals, dance recitals or friends’ theatrical plays. They ordered pizza at midnight, then got up early to see the sunrise before falling back into bed again. Yes, they had responsibilities, term papers and part-time jobs, but they also knew how to put themselves first.

Where is that girl inside of me? I know she’s in there somewhere. I want to find her again, and I hope it’s not too late. I don’t want to be in the middle of a midlife crisis before I give myself the freedom to enjoy life and make time for myself again. I’m not talking about “doing nice things” for myself, like splurging on a new handbag or buying a new stereo system, but about carving out time for myself. Solitude.

For me, solitude is that time when I can close the door and hear my thoughts and the thoughts of God without being distracted. It’s disengaging from the world and letting my mind drift to the magical land of possibilities, the life I truly want to live. I could be reading or taking a walk or soaking in a bathtub, but I am alone, and I feel the love and power of God envelop me. I dream about possibilities and hear God whisper ideas I’ve never considered before. I hear His corrections, His plea to slow down and love the people around me better. The sensation infuses me with life, hope and a sense of expectancy—like a schoolgirl in love. When was the last time you experienced it? I know, you can’t remember.

Why Are We So Tough on Ourselves?

Parents, teachers, coaches and employers may be the culprit. Quiet moments were rarely valued or modeled in our homes or among our peers. Few of us saw our families or friends live out their private lives in a way that communicated it was OK to make time for ourselves, to practice the spiritual discipline of solitude. They want us to buy into the baby-boomer lie that more is better. They want us to be independent and competent, to be financially secure and control our own destinies.

Growing up no one taught us how to grow a garden, how to kick back on the weekends with a warm blanket and good book or play board games as a family by the fire. We were always in the car, going to some event, doing some activity or sitting in front of the television. We heard the emphatic message that “you can do anything”—and that meant doing, not being. So we became demanding and failed to learn one of the greatest lessons in life—that sometimes, doing nothing is the most powerful experience of all.

In order to achieve the level of perfection we believed we had to attain, we needed to be productive. Club sports, youth group, piano lessons, Girl Scouts, homework, volunteering, employment—you name it, we’ve done it. As Judith Warner describes in Perfect Madness (Riverhead Trade), “There can be no distracting personal or avocation detours—[we] must be unrelenting in the pursuit of goals. No one can do anything if it doesn’t involve doing everything and doing it all at an incredibly high level of performance.”

I don’t want to be the kind of person who walks around with a “save the world or else” complex like some of my peers do these days. Instead, I want to be more like those who can embrace their inner child. They naturally turn on the football game, break out a deck of cards or play chess after dinner while the rest of us start loading the dishwasher. Maybe they’re just Type B people and I’m Type A. Possibly, but I think it’s more complicated than that. More often than not, I don’t give myself permission to read a magazine or take a walk because I feel the need to always fix things and don’t give others in my life a chance to help out.

I need to stop wanting my life to look perfect and in control to those around me. Because when I do, I beat myself up for missing the mark of perfection, and I’m left feeling too tired to address my greatest needs. Too tired to read. Too tired to soak in the tub. Too tired to play with my preschooler. Too tired to love my husband. Too tired to write. Too tired to pray. Something has to change.

A couple of times each year my husband finds sanctuary at a local spiritual retreat center. He fasts, plays his guitar, takes a walk, and talks to God. He comes away from that time renewed and believing that he’s heard from God. Sometimes it’s a simple message such as “Love people more,” and other times it’s more dramatic and may require a job change or relocation. He does this because it brings both God and him much joy to commune intimately, without the distractions of the world. Though I don’t like being left at home alone with our young children, I relish my husband’s arrival after a spiritual retreat. He’s glowing, mellow, attentive, and more gentle. He’s the man I married again.

We’ve been married for over a decade, and I have yet to enjoy a personal retreat. Sure, I’ve been on spiritual retreats—but with 50 other women. I have a good time, but I wouldn’t use the word “refreshed” to describe how I feel when I return to home to three wide-eyed children. Frankly, I am wiped out from so much interaction with so many people and so much information. I have just spent forty-eight hours with nearly just as many women … how can that be refreshing? What I need are some serious moments of solitude.

Learning to Let Go

The letters originally penned by Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fénelon, the Archbishop of Cambri, France, during the 17th century call us to let go of our selfishness and insecurity, which drive us to strive incessantly. Fénelon was the spiritual adviser for a small community of believers in the Court of Louis XIV, who sought to live a life of true spirituality amidst a society that was decadently immoral.

Fénelon wrote to his pupils, “Learn to cultivate peace. And you can do this by learning to turn a deaf ear to your own ambitious thoughts. Or haven’t you learned yet that the strivings of the human mind not only impair the health of your body, but also bring dryness to the soul. You can actually consume yourself in too much striving. … Your peace and inner sweetness can be destroyed by a restless mind.”

Have you, like so many these days, become increasingly cynical, overly analytical and suspicious toward people and life in general? Where do we find refreshment for our souls in a desert with no streams? How do we ignite our soul and begin cultivating our imagination? How do we find that quiet space in our lives again to reflect, create, pray, and dream? Keep reading.

First, we must see solitude or silence as a positive experience, not a negative one. Some women may actually be afraid of time alone. As Richard Foster says in Celebration of Discipline (HarperSanFrancisco), “The fear of being left alone petrifies people … our fear of being alone drives us to noise and crowds.” We have, in many ways, become dependent on noise and activity to make us feel alive and purposeful. We become anxious when we have nothing to do.

Unfortunately, we miss the opportunity that solitude offers us for much-needed rest and reflection—the kind of stillness that enriches our world and the quality of our relationships. For example, I feel a greater sense of compassion and desire to be attentive to others after I have spent some time alone. As Thomas Merton says, “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love [others]. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others.”

Solitude requires giving yourself permission to be alone once in a while. This will be harder for some. One of the reasons we resist solitude is that it make us feel useless or empty. We are used to controlling the world around us, and we get anxious when we are not moving all the time. We need to learn how to disengage from the nonstop demands of work, relationships and parenting and allow others to step in for a few moments to take over. It may also require organizing our time better so that we have margins in our schedules to take a breather and re-energize. When we are quiet, we have the opportunity to trust God more.

I often find that when I take 20 minutes out of my day to lie down, read or pray, new and life-giving thoughts fill my mind. Some of my greatest ideas for writing, media and ministry projects have even come to me during five-minute showers. As a mother of young children, sometimes a shower is the only “alone time” I get during the day. But when I can be alone, I hear from God more clearly. I turn over in my mind new ways to approach a problem or obstacle. I sense my shortcomings and remember to apologize to my loved ones.

Will you make time for yourself? It’s as simple as closing the door or taking a walk outdoors. You don’t have to live a frazzled, stressed-out life. You can love and enjoy people more because you make time to love yourself. Solitude awaits you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing my article on your blog. It was good to read it again. I need the same advice.

Author Shirin Taber