Sweetness in solitude
As the well-known Quaker writer and spiritual guide, Parker Palmer, was preparing for a time of solitude and retreat in a rented cabin in the remote Wisconsin countryside, a friend asked him if he liked spending time alone. “It depends on who shows up,” Parker said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend, sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who’s there when I get to the cabin.”
Anyone who has spent significant stretches of time in solitude knows what Parker Palmer was talking about. If you’re truly alone for any period of time, without the distractions of television, music, conversation,…just truly alone, all sorts of characters can start to show up: regrets, shame, fear, and anxiety, as well as beauty, wonder, awe, and joy, just to name a few. Bizarre guests can start to surface, as well as familiar friends.
Over the years as a parish priest, I have regularly gone on solo retreats to monasteries and remote cabins, where I rarely spoke with or saw another person. It’s the only way I know to be truly present to others, if I can learn how to be present to myself.
Someone told me that Carl Jung once remarked to a patient, “Why do you insist on inflicting yourself on others, when you cannot stand to spend an hour alone with yourself?” Something rings true about that for me. If we know our own complexity – our good impulses and bad, our noble thoughts and our selfish ones – we tend to be that much more compassionate about the same in others. But as long as we deny the existence of our own shadow, we are bound to be judgmental and unforgiving of others.
The 13th century Sufi mystic and poet, Rumi, writes about this in his poem, “The Guest House”:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
More and more, I’m convinced there is great wisdom here. But the advice is hard to follow. Very often, I can’t welcome the guests that come to me in solitude. They depress me and torture me. I understand why people turn on the television, get on Facebook, pick up the cell phone, pour a drink, or crank up the music – anything to escape or banish some of these unwanted guests who remind us that we are not nearly as well put together as we hoped.
But learning to welcome the many and varied guests who make up the substrate of my being might be one of most important things I can do. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, tiger and lamb, and learning to accept, welcome, and embrace it all could well be the path to that “peace which passes all understanding,” as St. Paul said. If I can become less proud of some aspects of myself, and less disgusted with others, maybe I can become better acquainted with the larger Self who is doing the welcoming and entertaining of all.
The haunting prospect is that if we cannot accept the larger, messy and wonderful truth of who we are, we might well need more screens to keep us occupied while we are young, and a caregiver to sit us in front of a mercifully distracting television when we are old.
Every now and then, I’ll see a parent dealing with a willful young child who is rebelling or having a meltdown in a public place like the grocery store. The parent sometimes seems embarrassed about having to deal with such behavior. Maybe they worry that people are judging them, seeing this as a sign of inferior parenting. In that situation, the parent sometimes angrily disciplines the child, as if to tell onlookers that this sort of thing is most unusual and not at all reflective of who they are or their parenting skills. I’ve never seen that work.
But at other times, I’ve seen a parent respond to such a rebellious or willful child by embracing or leading the little one gently by the hand. This parent might apologize if someone around them is inconvenienced or interrupted by the child’s outburst, but the parent isn’t anxious or embarrassed. Instead, the parent’s behavior calmly says in effect, “Yes, this is part of who I am. My child sometimes has a meltdown, and we parents love our children just the same, don’t we!” In that scenario, the child might go on pitching a fit, but everyone (probably including the child when he or she grows up), everyone relaxes a bit. A child’s meltdown in that case reveals a parent’s love.
Thomas Merton wrote, “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.” This hidden wholeness beneath the broken surface of our lives, I believe, is our soul, the Christ within each of us. It is our True Life, the guesthouse with the joyful host, the non-anxious and loving parent who calmly guides and embraces.
I understand why Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All human miseries derive from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The characters who sometimes show up when we are alone are embarrassing or worse, filling us with shame or regret. Sometimes we are our best friends, and other times we are our worst enemies. But beneath it all, in every one of us, is this hidden wholeness, this Christ within us all, who is not the least surprised or embarrassed by whoever shows. Instead, this Christ is taking us by the hand and showing us how even our failures and regrets are part of a tapestry that, strangely, will ultimately be more beautiful because of them.
Maybe there is a certain sweetness waiting for us in solitude. Maybe the television can remain turned off, after all.