Wednesday, January 21, 2015
“All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
It is a truth long acknowledged that it is not good for man to be alone. But new research suggests that our aversion to solitude is so great that many actually prefer painful electric shocks to their own company.
A recent study conducted by University of Virginia psychologists and released in Science magazine sought to measure how Americans handled undistracted solitude – and the results were disquieting. The study initially asked a group of nearly 150 college students to simply sit quietly in a room without distractions for six to 15 minutes. Most reported a great deal of difficulty and disliked the experience. Researchers then planned follow up tests with a wider variety of ages and backgrounds represented. In the next series of tests, they left participants alone in a room for a similar period with no available distractions save a device that would allow participants to give themselves painful electric shocks. Participants were even given a sample shock beforehand, to control for the “curiosity factor.” But even with their curiosity satisfied, so great was the need for distraction among the participants that a quarter of the female participants and two-thirds of the men shocked themselves at least once during the 15 minute period. One man (an outlier whose data was left out of the study) shocked himself 190 times. Many of those surveyed were unwilling or unable to simply sit quietly by themselves for a mere 15 minutes.
Given our aversion to being alone with our thoughts, the biblical emphasis on the importance of silence and solitude is all the more jarring. Jesus himself began his public ministry with 40 days of silence and solitude, and frequently stole away from his disciples for solitary prayer. Virtually all the biblical prophets spent significant time alone, often in the desert, in communication with God. Jesus even taught that “when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly…” (Matthew 6:6)
Since biblical times, virtually every Christian philosopher, and indeed the spiritual writings of most major religions, have emphasized the importance of silence and solitude in contemplating and examining one’s life and God’s holiness. Henri Nouwen asserted that “Without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life. Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching, and guiding – we need to set aside a time and space to give him our undivided attention.”
But why is solitude so vital to the spiritual life? And given its discomforts, what benefits does it offer? Why bother with solitude?
- Solitude removes our “protective distractions.” Much of what makes solitude so uncomfortable is what makes it so vital: by stripping away distractions, we are left alone with our thoughts, fears, unfulfilled hopes, resentments, wounds, and worries. They press in with force and clarity, and our half-disguised, half-ignored faults and failures make themselves known. We begin to know ourselves – including recognizing where we fall short, and how much we need redemption. Solitude provides space and time to focus on the invisible and eternal.
- Silence enables us to better hear the voice of God. Once, when asked what she considered the most important aspect of spiritual training, Mother Teresa answered, “Silence. Interior and exterior silence. Silence is essential in a religious house…There is no life of prayer without silence.” She later added: “God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. And he requires us to be silent to discover him. We need, therefore, silence to be alone with God, to speak to him, to listen to him and to ponder his words deep in our hearts. We need to be alone with God in silence to be renewed and to be transformed. For silence can give us a new outlook on life. In it we are filled with the grace of God, which makes us do all things with joy.”
- Silence and solitude erode pride and cultivate gratitude. It is difficult to continue under the delusion of our own brilliance when we realize how soon we are bored by our own thoughts. It is hard to ignore our reliance on others when we struggle with our own company. The difficulty of a simple discipline offers a humbling insight into the limits of one’s own nature – and enables us to better see the glory and fullness of the God who made us, knows us, and loves us. Silence and solitude both erode our own grandiosity, and provide a fertile soil for gratitude to grow.
The human aversion to silence and solitude may be nothing new, but the toys and tools at our disposal to distract ourselves are unprecedented. Engaging in silence and solitude is a discipline – requiring intentionality, work, even discomfort. But in contrast to the gnawing and numbing drive for distraction, sitting quietly in a room alone may yield surprising, even shocking, rewards.
Recommended Readings & Resources
Study: People Prefer Action, Even Electric Shocks, Over Solitude
A video explainer from AAAS and Science Magazine of a recent paper finding that we are so averse to being alone with our thoughts that we prefer any action, even self-administered electric shocks, to stillness and silence, 2008
Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Formatio, 2008
Winston Churchill, “Painting As A Pastime,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2001
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Who Stands Fast?,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2009
Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, Harper San Francisco, 1997