As an introvert with some curmudgeonly tendencies, I often crave time alone. But while I happen to be particularly disposed to solitude, I’m persuaded that time alone is essential for all of us. Many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, say the same thing, and suggest that solitude is not only good for us as individuals, but also for our relationships with others.
Unfortunately, in our hyper-connected age, when our gadgets keep us in constant contact with one another, solitude is underappreciated. Even those who seek it find it hard to come by, or don’t know how to savour it and learn from it when they do find it.
Jesus can help. In Matthew 6, he criticizes the do-gooders and the pious prima donnas who practise their faith and care for the poor as publicly as they can. Those who do good in order to be seen, Jesus says, “have received their reward.” For years, I mistook this as a threat, a veiled allusion to suffering in hell. But reading St. Augustine convinced me that Jesus was thinking of something more mundane. In an early commentary on these verses, the theologian suggested that the reward Jesus speaks of isn’t some punitive afterlife, as many interpreters continue to believe, but simply the admiration of others.
Desiring approval and admiration is an expression of our social nature, a nature that has always been affirmed by Christians, as God made us for relationship. The problem is that sometimes our desire to be liked by others can get in the way of the difficult demands of love.
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Augustine argued, for example, that the desire to be liked can promote rivalry and even violence. A highly effective way to garner applause is to emerge the victor in some scuffle, so living for others’ praise can lead to useless conflict and unnecessary competition. As our behaviour on social media shows, highly public polemics are a tempting way to earn the approval of our clan.
For others, the desire to be liked can lead to unhelpful flattery or permissiveness. In my own case as a teacher, my desire to be liked by my students often has me giving in to them too easily. Sometimes what might seem overly demanding to them would actually be best for their learning.
Jesus recommends solitude as one way to wean ourselves off the need to be constantly affirmed by others. In Matthew 6, he advises us to act only for our “Father who sees us in secret,” and to retreat to our rooms and shut the door before praying. When we do so, we stop seeking the reward of others’ approval. Instead, we can discern what God desires for us.
When I’m alone before God, I gain perspective on myself. I acknowledge my desire to be liked but I also reduce my need for positive feedback. This helps me stay focused in the classroom on what is good for my students, rather than what feeds my ego. A Christian approach to solitude, then, isn’t about rejecting the value of community or our responsibility to one another — just the opposite.
After Jesus advises his followers to pray alone, he tells them to begin their prayer with “Our Father.” That combination of “our” and “Father” signals to me that even in solitude we are in community. Through solitary prayer, we can learn to attend to others as our brothers and sisters under God, rather than members of our audience.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2020 issue with the title “Alone, together.”
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