These past few months have been a difficult time for me. After a busy spring and summer that involved graduating college, volunteering overseas, and preparing to study at a grad school that I would never go to, I didn’t have a lot of time to look closely at what I was doing while I was doing it. Then, after some unexpected expenses and a simmering existential crisis about to burst, I was back where my journey started, in Southwest Virginia, with student loan payments around the corner, a Bachelor’s Degree, and a life plan that quickly fell apart.
So, for several months, I tried to piece myself back together. Working overseas, while a powerful experience, crushed previous perspectives and challenged me to build new ones. Coming back home to a solitude that I was all too familiar with, I spent the first few months wafting between potential futures that offered glimmers of hope for the adrift soul I now understood myself to be. The next few would be spent trying to establish myself again, and reinvent the wheels that kept me going (which is no easy task to undertake, and one that I will continue to repeat throughout the rest of my life).
Everything came under attack by my own doubts. My education, my faith, and all of my personal philosophies came under a vicious internal assault. I alternately resisted any number of ideas, philosophies, and mantras, becoming a different version of myself hourly, with little time in-between. I would often wake up as a staunch pragmatist and go to bed a wistful dreamer. Split between many worldviews, I started trying everything I could to rediscover myself and my life and achieved nothing.
So, I rested. I rested from thinking, from striving, and from stressing about where I wanted to take my life. I let myself just simply be. In college, the constant vocabulary of “tomorrow” that I adopted as a personal rallying cry had made me an idolater of my own future. I lost some of my ability to exist in difficult circumstances and a present that was unwillingly prolonged.
By resting I do not mean that I sat on my butt and played video games in my parents’ basement (my parents don’t really have a basement so that’s technically impossible). Instead, I rested from thinking of all the possibilities of life and focused on the next few steps I could take. Instead of spending my time feeling lonely and lost (a hobby I have seen all too many young people take up in their early adulthood), I focused on keeping my hands and mind busy while remaining a certain distance from too many voices. I got a crummy job making coffee, applied to be a substitute teacher in my local school system, and spent most of my time at home talking to my parents, seeking out the wisdom from their fifty-plus years of living and thirty years of marriage (a luxury that I never take enough advantage of during college). And reading a LOT more poetry (a cathartic medicine for an angsty soul).
I dived deep into a cave of my own making. Constructing around me a crude mental structure of survival as I began to pick apart the values and the ideals that got me this far in life, I began to reassess my motivations and my beliefs in the silence of my old room and the quiet countryside of Southwest Virginia, which, if not anything else, is a great place to rest and reevaluate.
What has come out of that process is a renewed livelihood and a better understanding of the value of seeking out solitude. In today’s constantly connected world, the concept of escaping from other voices as a form of retreat from the world and a descent to irrelevance. In my opinion, on the other side of intentional isolation, you can find clarity.
My favorite saint in pretty much all of medieval Christendom is St. Francis. A multi-faceted, perplexing, and inspiring figure, his life offers profound wisdom and potentially troubling conclusions to modern Christians. A man, who, after a youth of extravagant hedonism embraced a life of abject poverty and a poet whose hands blistered with literally building churches of stone. His opinions spread controversy in his own time, and continue to inspire movements for greater simplicity and a deeper appreciation for the natural order (although many are not remotely Catholic or even Christian organizations).
In his excellent sketch of St. Francis’ life, 20th-century British journalist G.K. Chesterton uses a fantastic metaphor to describe the unique worldview that emerged in the young Italian after he spent a year in prison (before he was preaching peace, St. Francis was a young soldier with dreams of martial glory). Appropriating the cave of Plato (and the man who emerges from it), Chesterton describes St. Francis, emerging from the solitude that he never asked for, “As if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.” His entire world was flipped on its head, but he saw it clearer than he ever had. Although it didn’t effect Francis’ outward life until nearly a year later, the experience planted the seeds that eventually led to his renunciation of his old ways.
In our constant quest for a community, a calling, or a cohabitator, many young Christians are never taught to value solitude or to seek it out. We ignore the preparation for life that solitude presents us. It becomes difficult to pave a life path if we’re juggling a dozen different blueprints, each with slightly different routes and destinations. For many months, I let my life be determined by the encouragement of others. The community became an idol, and a confusing idol it is. Wrapping myself in the indulgence of others, I made decisions simply to be ratified by others. I lived life like I worked on school. I became so externally motivated, striving for others’ reinforcement, I regularly lost track of my personal will and beliefs as the driving forces in my life, relying instead on social reassurance, a far more temperamental compass to guide my life by. Your world can never truly shift until you take the time to stop trying to change it. Solitude is about letting the silence in so that the still small voice of God can be heard.
I learned a lot through my experiences during college, and the friendships I forged in that time have come to mean the world to me. My pursuit of community ended with many valuable experiences and connected me with some downright amazing people. Yet, I still struggled, and, as a human being, had my priorities in the wrong place, seeking the assurance of other people instead of seeking the wisdom of God and cultivating my own convictions.
So, I needed some alone time. Solitude, while often conflated with the terms “lonely” and “isolated” helps to better define life with and without other people.
I spent this New Years’ Eve alone. That is until my parents arrived to debrief after some festivities of their own. It capped off almost five months of constant (although not always quiet) contemplation that I wouldn’t give up for the world. After a year, split down the middle by a life-changing, reality crashing journey abroad, with overwhelming community on one side, and challenging solitude on the other, I’ve experienced the brilliance and difficulty in life from both sides. Seeing some friends grow close and others drift away, watching relationships blossom while others fizzle, I became more aware of the distinctly temporal nature of any situation in life, and the value of changing yourself to grow with new circumstances. Or rather, to be more accurate, the ability to retain your personhood despite lost or broken connections.
That’s where the summer comes in. Some of you may be more familiar with it than others (I sent a very sloppy email attachment to some, driven by an irresistible drive to share, without regard to quality or preparation). It’s spent months to process what I saw there. I spent nearly an entire month in a small city in the Middle East serving Syrian refugees, and while I can’t say that I made much of an impact myself, the people there changed me. After witnessing hundreds of children and adults suffer in the face of a conflict they could not help, I could not go on living as I once had. Watching the faces of children whose lives were upended by conflict and adults whose dreams struggle to survive after complete devastation, I began to understood (although it never clicked in relation to my own circumstances until months later) that hope and love must take a new form in the face of such circumstances and involve a rediscovery of the simple joy of living and a thankfulness for mere existence. Back home, I found old wisdom, ignored for years, return and a renewed gratitude for life and the powerful little choices I have been alotted in this short life. I gained new lenses for my eyes after seeing greater struggles than I have ever experienced. Although it took awhile for me to actually see through them.
In solitude, I found that life is not about striving toward the future. It’s about contentment. Dreams are good, and keep us alive, but dreams can also consume our lives.
I met an older gentleman while overseas who, despite all the circumstances surrounding him, the prejudice, the poverty, and the knowledge that his family still risked death across the border, loved life like hardly anyone I’ve ever met. He seemed like a much younger man than he was. My own dissatisfaction with life seemed silly compared to his love for mere existence, his appreciation for long walks, and his joy at little pleasures of the everyday. He did not need anyone to verify his value or measure his worth.
Now, with a New Year on the horizon, I commit to, no matter my circumstance, whether this will be another year of contemplation or full of bustling activity, I will take every opportunity to grow in my convictions and let my beliefs mature within me. I do not want to live so that other humans can affirm what I am doing, I want to live a life of internal satisfaction. So, for this year, as I try to emerge from the cave of my own making, from the uncertainty and doubt that plague the lonely mind, I commit to a life renewed and driven to grow closer to God and to the vision of life that aligns best with his wisdom.
Today is a brand new day. A world that changes with simple acts of kindness, a future that will be transformed by quiet preparation. I spent the first few months of this year seeking out a call, today, I start preparing for a life of many calls, of numerous passions, and of a million possible paths. Instead of worrying too much about my specific course, overwhelmed with possibility, I begin with the next step, using the present moment to guide the next decision. I choose to live more content. I will strive to never be complacent, but always satisfied. The world keeps spinning and I keep changing. Each day is an opportunity to learn more, to love more, and to live more. No matter whether in a season of quiet solitude or a phase of utter chaos, my happiness is never defined by circumstance.
This year, I’m ready to deliver on a promise I made to myself last year to live my best life, regardless of others’ expectations. I’m ready to imagine a better world while appreciating the little pleasures of the moment. I’m preparing for a future I cannot control by using the moments I can. My resolution to live a better life is not for a year, but for today. And for tomorrow’s today. And the today after that. I don’t know what’s next for me, but “-do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”- Matthew 6:34