On Community and Solitude in the Work of Writing
[Editor's Note: In the spirit of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Ben Palpant has written letters to his daughter to help her along the path of creativity and faith. He uses his hard-earned experience to help her learn to write and to live well and, by doing so, helps us do the same. He patiently and gracefully paints a vision of what it means to enter into one’s creative work as an act of generative obedience—an act that blesses the writer, the work itself, and the world that receives it. In this selection from Letters From The Mountain, Palpant reminds his daughter (and us) that God gave us solitude to feed our souls so that we could nourish the community for which we were made.]
“The first stars hover and drift down. Like a roosting hawk, I listen to silence and gaze into the dark.”
—J. A. Baker, The Peregrine
Out of five hundred plus in my graduating class, I was voted most likely to become a monk. No, I didn’t find it funny at the time, but after nearly twenty-five years of marriage and five children, I can laugh about it now. Mine isn’t exactly the monastic life, but I know why they voted that way. I’ve always been at ease with solitude. I was the kid who would rather be left alone most of the time, free to think his own thoughts and do his own thing, a textbook introvert. Even today I feel most at home in solitude, and most like a foreigner in crowds.
Maybe that’s why this quotation from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together keeps nagging at me. You read it to me yesterday because you share my aversion to crowds. I’m glad you gave it to me. His words have prompted me to meditate on the paradox of community, the necessity of being alone and together.
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God . . .
But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Called to Serve Community
God calls you to serve community. Your community is more than your family and friends. It includes coworkers and strangers, too. Generative Christians engender loyalty and trust and affection from those people. We build relationships, not simply platforms. The former tend to stay people-centered, while the latter are focused on income and influence. Neither hardship nor prosperity should derail the proper prioritization of people over prestige. Christ prioritized people over power in this way and you’re an extension of his love.
Generativity Thrives in Community
I’ve been surprised in life to find that my writing generates in those around me new creative expressions that, in turn, inspire me to further work. This picture coincides with the garden metaphor. When I cultivate the garden around me—weeding, watering, planting, and fertilizing—those plants blossom and send forth their own shoots, their own seeds on the wind. You will find this principle true in your own life.
Join a community that shares your love for God, for people, and for life. Share poetry together. Send each other quotations from the books you’re reading. Encourage them in their endeavors. That community is an important part of sustaining you on life’s journey. Eat together, play together, work together, and forgive each other.
All communities are prone to flattery, passivity, gossip, alliances, or jealousy. That is no reason to avoid groups. Patiently work through those things together, candidly honoring each other and helping each other to greater faithfulness. If you learn to depend upon others, your community will guard you from lusts of the mind, from pride, and from an inordinate self-reliance. Fear these things as much as you fear the lusts of the flesh. They are equally dangerous to the soul.
The Power of Community
For good or ill, people living in community share with each other, compounding their resulting growth. This isn’t always a good thing. The flu, for example, spreads rapidly, building momentum within a community as its victims increase in number. Gossip has a similar contagious quality—be it in a family or a class at school, and technology and social networks only accelerate the speed and extend the reach. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that many positive things are contagious, too, such as laughter or a strong work ethic. Gladness and hope are also contagious. Generativity is contagious. Friends who labor together for the same cause impact culture more effectively than one person who works in isolation.
We desperately need community. Isolation amplifies our vulnerability and multiplies our insufficiencies. The human heart’s downward drag will inevitably shift our vision from Christ to self, from faith to fear, from dependence to self-reliance. We need other people to remind us of God’s faithfulness and conquering work. We need them to keep us from trusting in our own strength. And we need others to lift our eyes to Jesus as we help them lift theirs. We have a responsibility to cultivate an upward orientation in the community God has given to us.
Consequently, one of the most important decisions we have to make is whom to befriend. Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” So find people whose faith seems stronger than yours, whose eyes are more fixed on the Lord than yours, and who verbalize thanks more often than you. Watch them. Imitate them. Walk with them. Eat meals with them. Pray for them. Thank them. Be vulnerable with them without dragging them down into your own self-pity. Fight the urge to become a vortex of selfishness.
Finally, the great power of community rests on its ability to engender thankfulness. Where people serve each other, pray for each other, weep with each other, and laugh with each other, thankfulness abounds. Thanksgiving, like praise, gives the heart an outward orientation. Maybe God calls us to community in part because being alone for too long turns our attention onto ourselves. The more we verbalize thankfulness, the more we forget about ourselves. We start noticing others and what they are doing. We start finding reasons to be thankful. Ultimately, we start seeing abundance instead of scarcity. Start asking yourself, “How can I thank the person right in front me?” A teacher, mother, sister, stranger? Learn to ask, “What is God giving me right now?”
Ultimately, your work is largely meaningless apart from community. You need readers, right? You need editors, right? You need to bounce your ideas off of others, right? Your writing is formed by others and for others. This realization should not surprise us since God is three persons in one, a community. He made us in his image and designed us for relationship. For this reason, the two greatest commandments offered by Christ to summarize the law given to Moses were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Love, as found in God and described in his word, requires community.
Writing Is Lonely Work
Yes, we’re called into life together, but I couldn’t be a writer without time alone. Writing usually happens in solitude. Most of the time, I have to generate ideas alone, too. I certainly have to agonize alone. More often than not, I must motivate myself to work and keep myself determined as well. Other people stay involved, encouraging where they can, but actually running the engine, maintaining the engine, and driving the engine somewhere are my job and mine alone.
I think you will find this true in your own life. The real substantive work must happen in your own heart and mind. You still have to wake up on your own and start writing. Once you are out of school, no one will make you do it. I doubt this news discourages you because you’re already wired to carry the writer’s lonely burden. But you may find that the hardest thing to do is find time alone. Something always intrudes.
Solitude vs. Isolation
I do not refer to family or friends who have every right to intrude, I refer to the myriad technologies that beckon to us: smartphones, social networks, immediate news alerts, YouTube. Despite our best efforts, we simply do not have the godlike ability to absorb and attend to so much information. As a result, I think our spiritual depths have shallowed, our inner landscapes have shrunk. Information’s incessant assault has made solitude—mental quietude—nearly impossible.
Ironically, with this decrease of solitude has come an increase of isolation. The differences are subtle but important. Both words describe time alone. Solitude is sought by those who want mental space to think and fill the heart’s tank before returning to community. Isolation, however, is sought by those who want to be alone and who will put up any wall to stay there. Solitude does not push others away like isolation does. Or look at this way: love desires solitude, selfishness desires isolation. Christ desired solitude, an angry teenager wants isolation.
Isolation amplifies the ego’s siren song; solitude exposes the heart’s unbridled babble. Solitude also affords the opportunity to feel mystery and immensity while encouraging an awareness of the inner life that relentless busyness and fear tend to arrest. In solitude, silence asserts itself.
For these and many other reasons, isolation is qualitatively different from solitude. God blesses a measured amount of the latter; the former is a sign of the curse: “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment” (Prov. 18:1). God did not make you to be alone in a permanent sense. Such aloneness goes against his Trinitarian nature.
Those who stay isolated for too long end up lonely. But that’s the world in which we live. Despite our increased connectivity, our homes have become isolation cells where we eat alone, watch TV alone, and sleep alone. Even within families, we push each other away. In private or public, we plug in to escape.
I write these paragraphs while sitting in a shopping mall’s lounge. I’m taking advantage of the moment while I wait for friends. Five candy and soda dispensers line the wall to my left. From two enormous televisions on the wall, sports commentators analyze an athlete’s ten-second failure. They are animated, but I cannot hear them over the clambering children, the exasperated adults, and the pop music pumping over the speakers. I’ve plugged in my earbuds to drown out the banging noises with noises of my own choosing. The irony of my situation is not lost on me.
So I’m faced with this reality and my own failure to handle it well. Can I concentrate only by plugging in my earbuds? Is solitude only possible with virtual detachment from reality? And when I detach in this way, do I usher in a loneliness I did not expect?
Learning to Value Solitude
Our Lord Jesus used solitude as a means of preparing for community and for work. If Christ needed to be alone in a boat or alone amongst the hills when he wanted to fellowship with his father, who are we to think that our souls will thrive on a diet of distraction and perpetual productivity? We need to get away, but we rarely do, so the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno, asks a question still pertinent today: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” If solitude and mental quietude are utterly foreign to us, how are we supposed to experience them? How are we supposed to recognize them when we see them? I pause and stare out the window. I have no answer. Or maybe this moment is an answer.
I have so much to learn. I’m trying to live out the paradox of community, taking time to be alone and living faithfully in community. I try to find small moments of solitude, no matter my station or duties in life. I try not to lie to myself about how little time I actually need to get away. I need less time for solitude than I generally think, but more than the world will offer. I’ve found that more frequent though shorter times of solitude are better than infrequent but long ones. A short walk is often enough.
Dorothy Sayers remarked that while our lives are flooded with words, we do not know what the words mean, nor how to fight them or fling them back. She says we’re prey to propaganda, but believe ourselves masters of our desires and convictions. If she is right, then humanity is currently in a pitiful position. I think part of the reason for our societal gullibility is the lack of solitude. We have no quiet spaces in which the mind can think carefully, the heart can long for transcendent things, and the soul can stretch toward God. Contemplation is an endangered practice.
BenPalpant is a memoirist, poet, novelist, and non-fiction writer. He is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light, Sojourner Songs, and The Stranger. He writes under the inspiration of five star-lit children and two dogs. He and his wife live in the Pacific Northwest.