Unlocking the Idea of Solitude

Saturday, July 29, 2017 - 9:00 am
Waves break off Sunset Beach, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Unlocking the Idea of Solitude

Jennifer Stitt’s commentary on first learning how to be alone before being with others tapped into a dormant yearning that, frankly, I didn’t see coming to the degree that it did. There’s something about unlocking the idea of solitude now that feels more important than ever before. But, what do we do with this understanding?

So, I’m asking folks from all walks of life — our columnists, philosophers and scientists, athletes and yoga instructors — to share their expressions of solitude: why it is (or isn’t) important, how they create space for it, where do they turn to figure it out, who do they look to as models.

Photo by Brandon King (Flickr / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs)

Courtney Martin | Mothers Must Guard Their Own Solitude
The first person to respond to my request? A mother, and one of the most resilient people I know. It is crucial for women, says Courtney, to carve out space to nurture no one but themselves:

“Women throughout history have traded their very lives for the idea that there is nothing more important than nurturing others. In some ways, I believe that. In other ways, I know that idea, unexamined, threatens my sanity and health.”

 Photo by Astrid Stawiarz (Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

Omid Safi | What Maya Angelou Taught Me About Paying It Forward
“You have been paid for.” These five words from the late Maya Angelou stick with Omid to this day, nearly 30 years after hearing them as a freshman in college:

“But, here was this magnificent, charismatic, beautiful, wise black woman telling me that I was paid for. … I was there with my family’s love, with their sacrifice, and I was not alone. I was paid for. I was paid for not just in money (though I still carry the student loans almost three decades later); I was paid for in love, I was paid for in tears, and I was paid for in sacrifice. And somebody knew that. Somebody saw us, somebody recognized us. I belonged, just a little bit more.”

Photo of waterfalls by Jack Smoter.

Photo by Jack Smoter (Unsplash / Public Domain Dedication (CC0))

Parker Palmer | The Power of Creative Non-Resistance
Parker with a poem by Danna Faulds on letting go of our “known way of being” and discovering the wisdom of letting things unfold around us.

Things from Beyond Our Realm
The Washington Post | Love Thy Neighbor?
There’s something about this recent WaPo article that seems to illustrate better than most the hopefulness of listening to each other, even when/if we’re coming from an extreme position. Randy Atchison also writes, “Also, it’s a nice reminder that rural America still has some wisdom for us city types.”

Vanity Fair | Jay-Z, Prince Harry, Brad Pitt, and the New Frontiers of Male Vulnerability
Monica Lewinsky’s piece on male vulnerability is insightful but also just kind of a fun take using examples of men we’re all familiar with: a music mogul, royalty, and a macho movie star. (h/t Marie Sambilay)

The New York Times | Cardinals on Opposite Sides of the Hudson Reflect Two Paths of Catholicism
Not poles of the Catholic Church but two dynamic expressions of its parishioners made manifest in Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Joseph Tobin.

Featured Essays from Our Guest Writer

Dancers from LINES Ballet perform "1638."

Photo by Doug Kaye (Flickr / Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs)

Lauren Small | Lost on the Children’s Psychiatric Ward
The gift of reading stories aloud, Lauren says, grounds both student and teacher alike — and gives shape to our suffering:

“If anyone knows what it is like to have a bad day, these kids do. As I turn the pages, the girl across from me who has been fidgeting in her chair, her body rigid and tight, relaxes just a bit. A boy who has been standing in the corner of the room, staring out the window, wanders over to the table and sits down.”

Photo by Ted Aljibe (Getty Images / © All Rights Reserved)

Lyndsey Stonebridge | The Shape of Totalitarianism and the Meaning of Exile: Three Lessons from Hannah Arendt
What could be more relevant than this article by our former podcast guest?

“Totalitarian regimes are easy to spot; they exist in history books and far-away places. It’s more difficult to recognize the totalitarian elements in one’s own place and time.”

In Memoriam: Cheri Maples

We first encountered Cheri Maples, a police captain from Madison, Wisconsin, in the early 2000s while at a retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh. After first balking at the Vietnamese Zen master’s most basic principles, she later began incorporating his ideas into her police work. Eventually, she became a dharma teacher herself — advocating for finding buoyancy and “being peace” in a world of conflict, anger, and violence.

She died on July 27th at the age of 64. Her light will be missed. With all the tragic deaths in the news, trust between the general public and municipal police forces is strained. Whenever I feel cynicism welling up, I turn to Cheri’s conversation with Krista for hope and humanization, particularly this story:

“I was on a domestic violence call, and it was one of these calls where I would have just arrested the guy. I would have just — ‘Hey, enough’s enough,’ you know? This was a scenario where breaking up is hard to do, and there was a little girl, and they were exchanging custody. And he was kind of holding the little girl hostage, not wanting to give her back to Mom. And there had been no violence that had taken place, but both Mom and the little girl were very scared and intimidated.

And ordinarily I would have said, ‘That’s it,’ slapped the handcuffs on him, taken him to jail. But something stopped me, and I had just come out of this retreat. And I got the little girl, got him to give me the little girl, took care of her, got her and her mom set, told them just to leave, went back. And I just talked to this guy from my heart, and within five minutes — I mean, I’ve got this big gun belt on. I’m about 5’3″. Right? And this guy’s like 6’6″. And he’s bawling. And I’m holding this guy with this big gun belt on and everything. And he was just in incredible pain, and that’s what I started realizing [what] we deal with is misplaced anger because people are in incredible pain.

So I ran into him three days later in a little store on Willy Street, where I lived at the time. And this guy comes — he sees me off-duty, he picks me up, gives me this big bear hug, and said, ‘You saved my life that night. Thank you.’ And so when you have experiences like that, and you start to realize, ‘Well, what am I doing different here?’ I mean, really, it’s about softening your heart. When you’re a police officer and you do this work, you need to find a way to be able to maintain both the compassionate bodhisattva within you and the fierce bodhisattva and know when each is called for and how to combine the two. And once you start down this path, it’s possible to learn that.”

Thank you for all the helpful feedback about our new On Being discovery experience! Changes are in the works. Please keep testing and sharing the app with others. That’s how you can help us make an impact in the world around us. I’d love to hear your suggestions, too. Please send me a note: trentgilliss@onbeing.org or via Twitter at @trentgilliss.

May the wind always be at your back,
Trent

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as publisher & editor-in-chief. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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  • LenM

    There’s outer solitude. And there’s inner solitude. My experience is that the more you have the latter, the less you need the former.