"You're all caught up." If you’re an Instagram user, you know this phrase. Its when you’ve seen the stories, and scrolled all the new posts in your feed. You’re all caught up on the new content. Thats what my phone told me as I sat in an oddly shaped club chair alone on the lower level of a multi-hall convention center in Montpellier, France. BioEM 2019, a bio-electric magnetic conference was taking place and Alanna, my wife, would be delivering a talk soon that I wanted to be at to support. Since I was not a registered guest - I hid in the basement until it would be time to sneak into the hall where she’d be talking.
I had finished reading a book a little earlier, looked at the all the recently posted boats on craigslist, texted anyone who I could think of awake on the other side of the world, checked email - and finally scrolled through all the instagram available. I was “all caught up.” The next option:
spend some time in silence and solitude
sneak into a lecture on the Effect of Exposure to 900MHz Radio Frequency on the MEG Alpha Band Activity at Rest and the Biophysical Plausability.
Why is it so hard for us to sit and do nothing? To be silent? Not listening to music, podcasts, the radio? To not view or take in any content? Why is it so difficult to simply be... alone with ourselves?
Ruth Haley Barton, in Strengthening the Soul of our Leadership, says that we resist solitude at all costs “because of the anxiety that comes when we pull ourselves away from all that we have allowed to define us externally.” In other words, we resist being alone with ourselves because for many of us - we simply don’t know or have forgotten who we are apart from our external definitions. External definitions often revolve around what we do. For example, I’m a pastor. But who am I if I’m not preaching, discipling, counseling, consoling, coaching or helping and teaching others? Who am I if I'm not pastoring? If we can separate our identity from our work, it often will still locate itself externally in a relationship with someone. I’m a husband, brother, son, friend. But those aren’t necessarily who I am, they only exist in so far as the person I’m relating too exists. What does it mean to be me? Who are you, when you stop defining yourself externally?
Who are you internally? And, why are you so dead set on not ever being silently alone with that person? I heard a recent class of college students were challenged by their professor to leave their phones in their dorm room and go outside and walk around alone for four hours. Some students reported feeling phantom vibrations in their pockets, causing them to reach for what was not there. Others reported panic attack-like symptoms within 2 hours of being away from their phone. Now I know that sounds extreme - but there’s something tremendously important here. If you never slow down, unplug, and spend time alone with who you are - who you really are - it will cause you problems. In fact its causing us all problems.
Flannery O’Conner once said that “the first product of self-knowledge is humility.” I think one of the big reasons we don’t want to spend time alone with ourselves, is that we’re afraid we might not like what we find. A person who knows themselves well, spends time alone with themselves, is keenly aware of their flaws and inner darkness. Being aware of your own shortcomings produces humility. The fact that we as a society rarely spend time in silence and solitude, but rather get “all caught up,” breeds a massive lack of humility, and therefore interpersonal conflict. If I cannot imagine how people could think, speak or behave the way that they do - and I’m appalled at their actions - that’s a problem. It reveals a lack of self-awareness of my own faults, and failures, and shortcomings - a lack of awareness of my own unresolved anger, life-long wounds, and the various factors that make me who who I am (apart from what I do) - including the darkness. But if we spend honest silent time alone with ourselves, its likely we will be confronted with ourselves. And that confrontation ought to produce humility.
If you’re a Jesus follower the news is even better than that.
If you’re a Jesus follower you don’t have to find your identity in what you do for a living or for others, but you can find it in what God says you are - and believe me He knows you. The real you. The apostle Paul puts it this way in a letter he wrote to a group of christians living in first century Ephesus. He says,
“you were dead in your transgressions and sins” - pretty honest...
“but because of God’s great love for you shown in Christ, he saved you” - he thought you were worth dying for.
“we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” - see, thats where we go wrong.
Thats where I go wrong. I thought God (and others) loved me for the good works I do. But that's not what he says. God doesn’t love you for your good works. God loves you because your his handiwork. His craft. His piece of art. his craftsmanship. His poem. He loves you for who you are - because he made you, and saved you.
And that my friends, should humble us. It humbles me. Because I know me. I know the real me: the selfish, greedy, lusting, insecure, prideful, busy me.
And the more time I spend alone with myself, in silence and solitude, confronted with myself - while reflecting on God’s surpassing love for myself - the more it changes the way I see people. If I’m loved and shown grace despite my brokenness, then that self-awareness should lead to a humble and gracious posture towards others.
I wonder what would happen if more people sat in silence and solitude a little more often. What if Jesus’ followers, the Church, led the way in unplugging every now and then to be confronted with themselves. How might it change us? How might humble self-awareness change our families? Our schools? Our communities? Our politics? How might it change your contentious relationships? Or your next family gathering or holiday dinner?
So go ahead. Unplug. Someone wise once said, “most things will work better when you unplug them for a while and plug them back in. Including us.”
Find a room, a chair, a quiet place of some kind.
Sit in silence for more than 15 minutes.
Ask yourself “who am I when I’m not performing”
Ask yourself “What do I love?” “Loathe?"
Invite God to open your eyes to the dead places in your life, and to bring his healing life.
My guess is that when we start making this silence and solitude a regular habit - we’ll find ourselves feeling “all caught up” on what matters most: character, Spirit, and soul.
Comment below, letting us know where your quiet space to practice is... or will be.