It’s an old truism that a person can be lonely in a crowd. It’s also a truism that the loneliest people are found in cities. Surrounded by others, loneliness can suddenly sweep over a woman like me, overwhelming her with emotion and leaving her spent and empty. This is common. It’s a well-known feeling. Cities are lonely places.
The loneliness felt in a city is not solitude. It’s just loneliness. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness though I’m not sure I can put my finger squarely on it. Perhaps the difference is in my response to these isolating circumstances: loneliness is dreaded — solitude is welcomed; loneliness is life-long — solitude is temporary; loneliness is a consequence of sinful attitudes — solitude can be a consequence of obedience to God’s will.
I’ve always been drawn to nature writing, the writing of solitude. Obviously, nature writers don’t go into the wilderness to meet other people but to be alone in thought or prayer. I do this as well, but not successfully. Alone in nature, the thoughts in my mind jostle loudly. They’re a bit out of control because no external force such as putting words to “paper” channels my thinking down a straight path. I struggle to pray in nature; admittedly, prayer is always difficult for me. In solitude, however, my thoughts aimlessly wander unless I corral and drag them home.
Interestingly, when in solitude, my meandering thoughts often return to past conversations or encounters with people. At a time when I’m finally alone, enjoying the solitude I needed and craved, my mind is conjuring or remembering … not being alone! I think of past conversations, replaying them in my mind. I think of things I wish I had said, or didn’t say. I’m not sure why my mind turns to people when I’m feeling alone — there is no good explanation for this.
I do know, however, that lovely solitude morphs into dreadful loneliness only at the times my mind is recalling or imagining people. I am never lonely when I think of beauty, trees, colours, God, philosophical ideas, architecture or whatever. I am only lonely when I think of people.
So, stop thinking about people, right? Oh, I wish it were so easy. There’s a deep chasm within me that can only be bridged by other people. Yes, God can be my all … but as a Christian I need fellowship, and, yes, other sorts of people. Thus, I crave both solitude and people. I think this typically happens if periods of solitude are short and a return to others is assured.
But, sometimes solitude lasts for many years. Usually, there’s a reason for lengthy bouts of solitude. I firmly believe that when God calls a person to something new, He pulls that person out of fellowship into “desert solitude.” In my case, I am in an anonymizing city, surrounded by people whose speech I barely understand. It’s very lonely here. Being in a city is not God’s normal pattern. Most Christians are pulled OUT of society, not into it. In my case, however, city-solitude is following many years of suburban-semi-solitude during which time I cared for my elderly father. Honestly, I don’t like cities though I love the art, culture and architecture that cities afford. So, though most people are pulled away from cities into nature, I’ve been pulled into a city, into culture. This must have to do with a future calling.
Desert solitude doesn’t happen necessarily, of course, but it does happen often, particularly if the transforming Christian is older, experienced and spiritually mature. It’s easy to find biblical examples of individuals who were pulled into the wilderness or desert for a long period of time BEFORE they were plucked out of obscurity and isolation to be used by Him. I’ll just give one example — Paul. After Paul’s conversion and before his apostleship and ministry, he was isolated in the Arabian desert. No one knows what happened during those years. We only know that he endured a hot, bleak and unforgiving environment because God called him out of the city into desert solitude.
Paul: “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years …”
Three years! That’s a sizeable chunk of a person’s life. Biographies of notable Christians, however, reveal that the time spent of desert solitude is often much longer than three years; sometimes it’s decades. These are agonizing years of great loss as well as great gain. What is lost is everything — every dream, aspiration, desire, hope, ability and goal. A person loses love in solitude as well as the comfort of others. As years pass in solitude … aging disfigures with no recompense. Solitude is also a time of cultural and physical poverty. There’s no reason to bring wealth or items into the desert as most stuff cannot be enjoyed in solitude. It makes sense that I, in this period of desert solitude I have lost touch with everything — money, security, property and other stuff.
In desert solitude, I have learned about loneliness. Loneliness is a form of suffering. It’s quite a bit like self-pity. In the desert, I must will myself to endure solitude as well as deny myself the crutch of loneliness. Also, I have to deny myself the luxury of feeling sorry for myself, of indulging in self-pity. I have to stop looking back to happier times and just let myself float in His will as it carries me downstream to a destination I cannot see. I must simply say YES. Affirm the circumstances. Affirm the God who controls all circumstances. Just say YES.
Suffering is not the whole story. Something is gained in desert solitude, too. What I have gained is “all.” (Remind me of this when I whine, please.)
I count it all joy to suffer for Him …
I admit that this verse make me ill. It’s so impossible. So self-denying. So painful. And yet, there it is, staring at me from the pages of scripture. Counting it to be joy means not merely accepting but actually celebrating desert solitude. I have had a few moments of acceptance, very fleeting, during which time I’ve been able to celebrate suffering, but mostly, I’m miserable. I can not see desert solitude as a gift. To me, it’s a curse or punishment. I know this is wrong thinking.
Is such suffering necessary, you may wonder?
That’s the truth and I’m not going to gloss it to make you feel better. All Christians suffer. I am suffering greatly now. You will suffer, too. Christians often suffer more than non-Christians because we gain from suffering a spiritual maturity which non-Christians will never have or desire.
I know that Jesus is waiting for me to look up and say to Him,
“YES … I submit to what’s happening, to my circumstances, to this suffering. I understand — no trust — that desert solitude is Your perfect will. Do as you want with me. I am willing, though I have only the faith of a mustard seed, to share in your sufferings. Help me mean this. Make these words true. Transform the suffering of my loneliness into the joy of solitude. Amen.“