Let me tell you about solitude.
My junior year of high school, I was sitting in AP US history when my ankle started to hurt. It was the third time that week it had happened, just a sharp, searing pain in my leg. I remember thinking, “This never happens during the marching season because I’m on my feet, I’m moving so much. Maybe I should move more.” So, when I got home, I bundled up for Indiana in April and went for a walk around the neighborhood. I did the same thing the next day. And the day after that. And just about every day I didn’t have some kind of practice or meeting immediately after school. Pretty soon, the stiffness in my ankle was gone. But what I quickly found is that what started out as a pretty lame way to get some exercise had an unexpected benefit. In a short time, my walks around the neighborhood became the most precious half hour of my day. I didn’t text, I didn’t worry about the work I had to do when I got home, I just put in my headphones and listened to a song I loved, and I went and spent time alone.
When I got to Vandy, I remembered how that felt, and it didn’t take me very long to trace a favorite path across campus. When hard things happened, I went for a walk. It’s always been my way to recharge, as I’ve learned more in college how to invite God into my everyday life, it’s also become the place I heard Him best. Walking with God – literally – gave a whole new meaning to my understanding of being alone.
Yesterday, my friend Ian spoke on the beauty in solitude at Poplar Creek. This was definitely a message for me to hear, seeing as in the last month, all of my friends have gone back to school at Vandy and my family has started up their normal lives and schedules. I’m just kind of hanging out. I don’t have any set schedule, I don’t have a whole lot I need to accomplish between now and leaving for Argentina at the end of February. That’s a lot of time alone.
And what I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks is that it can either be a lot of time of loneliness or a lot of time of solitude. There are some critical differences between the two. One is Biblical. One is healthy for spiritual growth, and it’s got some intentionality behind it. One is that feeling I found going on walks in high school. The other is, well, basically a pity party.
This is where loneliness comes from – this theory so prevalent in this world that if you’re alone, if you’re sitting alone, if you’re spending a Friday night alone, it’s because you lack something. You’re not enough. Nobody wants to spend time with you. When I get to thinking like this, pretty soon, I don’t want to spend time with me, either.
Man, do I feel that one. When I have free time – and I’ve talked with sisters about this in Bible studies before – it is so easy to get caught in this guilt and shame spiral of watching TV but wishing I had spent that time in the Word, reading a fluff fiction book instead of studying my Spanish – the list goes on and on. Or, I do spend intentional time sitting and thinking, and I focus entirely on the hard things, the things I did wrong, the wrong I perceived was done to me.
There’s a short indie film I watched a couple weeks ago called The Butterfly Circus. If you’ve never seen it, it’s 22 minutes long and worth every second. Afterwards, my parents put on the bonus content, which had some interviews of the cast and crew. That’s when something one of the actors said caught my attention. There’s a scene where Mendez, the showman of the Butterfly Circus, visits a sideshow at another carnival. There, he sees a man with no arms and no legs. After everyone has laughed, and pointed, and left, Mendez walks up to Will and says, “You are magnificent.” Doug Jones put it like this: “That moment is the whole film to me. God looks at us and says, ‘Just the way I created you – you are magnificent.'” The rest of the film tells the story of how Will learned to see himself that way, too.
That moment is what I thought of during today’s message. If I actually believe that God sees me that way – as beautiful, as loved, as known, as magnificent – then how does my view of myself reflect that truth? And from there, how does the way I perceive time alone reflect that? Because if the answer is loneliness, something is very, very wrong. And I’ll be honest, for a week or so there, the answer was most definitely loneliness. I wasn’t taking solitude from being alone, I was letting being alone take hold of me.
Here’s the thing – I do believe that I am loved, and known, just as I am. Sometimes, it’s just hard to put into practice. I need a reminder. I need to refocus.
At the end of the service today, my friend Branden led us in something called a centering prayer. It’s pretty simple: you clear your mind, and you listen to God. Which actually sounded insane and impossible when I first heard him say it. But then he instructed us to do this – every time a thought floated across my brain, of what I have to do later or what I’m ashamed of doing last week or what have you – every time I was tempted to follow one flitting thought down the rabbit hole of worry, fear and distraction – I said, “God, you are good and I trust you.” I refocused.
So when it comes to spending time alone, I need to refocus. I believe that God loves me just the way I am – and if I preach that, if I preach the Gospel of grace over myself, my actions will take that on. Solitude will replace loneliness. And solitude is a beautiful place of rest and restarting. Solitude is exactly what I need in this in-between time.
Don’t ever be afraid to be alone. Just the way you are, close your eyes and let God say it over you: you are magnificent.