by Pastor Melissa
Nature’s wind chimes. The sturdy breeze moved through the bamboo grove on the perimeter of the labyrinth, the hollow trees bumping against one another in tenor tones. As my feet moved me through the labyrinth, my mind moved me through stages of my life. Feet and mind worked together to bring healing more completely into my spirit. I was alone in the labyrinth; the other participants in the conference I was attending were using their free time in various ways and places around the retreat center. But I didn’t feel lonely. Instead I felt the joy of solitude.
There are pandemics running parallel to COVID: the pandemics of systemic racism, of grief, of loneliness. These parallel pandemics existed before, of course, but have been sharpened and made more visible over the last two years. As I think about the pandemic of loneliness, I ponder the difference between loneliness and solitude. You can be in a crowd and still feel lonely. Loneliness is the experience of not being able to share your true self with another person or persons, of not being able to give or receive authentic support and care. Loneliness is painful. Solitude, on the other hand, is rejuvenating. It's the experience of being good company for yourself. Solitude is fertile ground for creativity, reflection, and spiritual growth.
In my church prayer circle someone recently asked a good question: How do we help people move from loneliness to solitude? As I consider this question, I recall my recent time in the labyrinth and consider why I experienced solitude rather than loneliness. One reason is that I’ve simply learned in my faith journey that being alone with God and with myself is a positive and necessary thing. So even though being alone - without distractions! - can be uncomfortable (and is certainly counter-cultural), I know that it is worth the initial discomfort. I know the rich rewards of solitude. The other reason the labyrinth wasn't lonely, however, is that my solitude was chosen. And it was buffered by connections with people. I recognize how lucky I am to know that there are people who care about me, listen to me, and support me. Knowing that I have this gift opens up a space for me to inhabit solitude more fully.
This is a gift that everyone should have. When I give thanks for the connections and support in my life, I remember times that I have been lonely, and I pray for people who are lonely now. Can you join me in that prayer? Who needs support, care, and connection? Even if you are lonely yourself, what could you offer to help someone else experience less loneliness and more solitude?