The Courage to Be Alone

In the last reflection, I suggested that our worth cannot be lost only if it is inseparable from who we are. It is insecure and mistaken if it is sought in possessions or dominating power. I also suggested that we uncover this sense of worth through solitude, friendship, and social responsibility.

Social pressure, however unwittingly, impels us not to trust the unfolding of life from within us, but to conform to stimuli and demands from outside. Our own experience of limitations, weakness, and mortality, allows that social ethos to hook into our anxiety and trap us.

Time alone, especially in silence, is essential to becoming free within and uncovering a sense of sacred worth. Yet, the fear that what is deepest within is empty or wrong, impels us to flee from ourselves. Many years ago, spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, commented on this fear. “There are two silences,” he writes, “one is frightening and the other is peaceful. For many, silence is threatening. They don’t know what to do with it. … We have become alienated from silence. … If a person is invited to exchange this noise (i.e., radio, television, cell phone, etc.), it is often a frightening proposal.”

Yet, he adds, “still more is the achievement of inner silence, a silence of the heart. … It seems that a person who is caught up in all that noise has lost touch with his own inner self. The questions which are asked from within go unanswered. The unsure feelings are not cleared up and the tangled desires are not straightened out, the confusing emotions are not understood. All that remains is a chaotic tumble of feelings which have never had a chance to be cured because the person constantly let himself or herself be distracted by a world demanding all their attention.”

Theologian, Karl Rahner, expresses a similar view: “Have the courage to be alone,…to endure your own company for a time.” We may then find a path to self-awareness and self-worth. The words of Nouwen are worth quoting again. “To be calm and quiet all by yourself is hardly the same as sleeping. In fact, it means being fully awake and following with close attention every move going on inside you. … Perhaps there will be much fear and uncertainty when we first come upon this ‘unfamiliar terrain,’ but slowly and surely we begin to see developing an order and a familiarity which summon our longing to stay home.”

“With this new confidence,” he writes, “we recapture our own life afresh from within. Along with this new knowledge of our ‘inner space’ where feelings of love and hate, tenderness and pain, forgiveness and greed are separated, strengthened or reformed, there emerges the mastery of the gentle hand. . .whereby a person once again becomes master over their own house. … If we do not shun silence, all this is possible. But it is not easy. Noise from the outside keeps demanding our attention and restlessness from within keeps stirring up our anxiety. … But the promise of this silence is that new life can be born.”

These words express that if we do find the courage to be alone, many thoughts and feelings may come to the surface of our awareness. Even if they may be disturbing, we may simply allow ourselves to feel them, notice them without judgment, and attend to them or let them be for a time. Then we may find that there is a place within us, which Nouwen calls home. It is deeper than all that rustles on the surface of our lives.

Thomas Merton recalls that we live in a society that allows us to be distracted and avoid our own company for 24 hours a day. Elsewhere, in a journal, The Sign of Jonas, he mentions his own experience of inner turmoil, along with the uncovering of inner peace and stillness within, that was more real and lasting. He tells of experiencing a kind of terror within, “a slow submarine earthquake.” Yet beneath it all, he discovered a deep happiness that was real and permanent. “It penetrated to the depths below consciousness, and, in all storms, in all fears, in the deepest darkness, it was always unchangeably there.”

Certainly, Merton’s experience, both in its joy and sorrow, was more profound than we are likely to experience. At the same time, he gives us the assurance that if we do in fact allow our lives to be infused by solitude, we may uncover a sacred identity, an inner awareness and strength, that is deeper than all else, and in fact is unshakable. It may not always or even often be felt. But we may sense its presence, beneath “the slings and arrows,” the “earthquakes” of life.

Perhaps I most felt this sense–or at least a longing to feel it–in connection with my younger brother, Mike. He died at twenty-six years of age from heart failure, the result of a condition he had since birth. I believe his value and the value of his brief life, came from who he was. Some fifteen years later, at a spontaneous writing workshop, I wrote a poem about my final visit with him. I ended the poem with these words. “Perhaps your death and my sorrow/ and your friendship and mine/ and all the sorrows and friendships since that time/ will lead a path behind the walls/ and free the child within.”

May you also discover the child within, the home within, the sacred core of who you are, deeper than and never found or lost by what you do, or what you have. May your time alone become a place of coming home to your true self. May the silence of your own heart also lead you to uncover your connection with others, the natural world, the earth, and the universe itself.

Norman King, January 16, 2023