It's that moment. I've finished checking homework, handing out backpacks, rummaging for baseball caps, finding car keys, bestowing kisses. The door slams shut for the last time, and I'm alone. Glad as I will be to have my family reconvene under this roof hours from now, I treasure this early-morning solitude, this small nest of time inhabited only by me. Soon I'll be up and out the door myself, but for these next sacred minutes, I will sit on the window seat, coffee in hand, and watch the sky.
Solitude is the soul's holiday, an opportunity to stop doing for others and to surprise and delight ourselves instead. When we are hungry, we get the signal right away, and we pay attention. Thirst is sneakier. By the time our bodies send us in search of water, we are already dehydrated. The same holds true in our thirst for solitude. By the time I begin to crave a vacation alone on a desert island, chances are my emotional well has already run dry. And so I've learned to create little islands of solitude in my daily life.
We need to have some downtime:
It's a challenge to let ourselves slow down. As Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says, "We seem to have a complex about busyness in our culture. Most of us do have time in our days that we could devote to simple relaxation, but we convince ourselves that we don't." It seems there is always something that needs doing, always someone who needs our attention. "Unfortunately," Moore says, "we don't get a lot of support in this culture for doing nothing. If we aren't accomplishing something, we feel that we're wasting time."
Many of us feel compelled to measure our success in terms of acquisition and accomplishment. But even women who are unwilling to buy into such a narrow definition of success may feel uncomfortable with the idea of claiming time just for themselves, with no agenda whatsoever. Often when we find ourselves with an empty hour, we spend that time doing chores or attending to our relationships.
If no one's around, we'll reach for the phone—or the TV remote or even the vacuum cleaner. We avoid ourselves because we're afraid of what we might find: a forlorn, flawed someone who's missing out on life's party. But solitude and isolation do not go hand in hand. We can retreat from the world for a time without being renounced by it.
Watching my 3-year-old neighbor play outside her house, I marvel at her contentment and self-sufficiency. She is completely absorbed as she plants twigs in an empty flowerpot and chatters to her doll. She's enjoying her own good company—a knack that, somewhere along the line, so many of us lose.
You get these things when alone:
If we are always focused on external stimulation, or even on our relationships, we miss opportunities for inner growth and renewal. Here's why it's important to insist on time alone:
We're more creative alone. Pulitzer prize–winning writer John Updike, author of 51 books, attributes his astonishing productivity to a schedule that honors empty time. "Ideally," he explains, "much of my day should be, in a strict sense, idle, for it is often in idle moments that real inspiration comes."
Solitude can cure what ails you. Several years ago, my best friend became concerned when her left arm and hand went numb. Her doctor proposed a series of tests to rule out a brain tumor, among other possibilities. But first, he suggested, she should spend three days alone, meditating and reflecting on her life. Although she was skeptical, she went to an empty cabin in the woods for the weekend and simply listened to her body, attuning herself to her inner wisdom. "I had been refusing to see that my marriage was really over," she explained afterward. "I had three children and no money, and I was terrified. But after that weekend alone, I knew the truth. And the numbness eventually went away."
In solitude, we see more clearly. "We live in an extremely externalized culture," Moore says. "We are constantly pulled outside ourselves—by other people, by the media, by the demands of daily life. Nothing in our culture or in our education teaches us how to go inward, how to steady the mind and calm our attention. As a consequence, we tend to devote very little time to the life of the soul, the life of the spirit." We need to balance the pace and intensity of modern life with periods of what poet May Sarton has called "open time, with no obligations except toward the inner world and what is going on there." Alone—in moments of prayer or meditation, or simply in stillness—we breathe more deeply, see more fully, hear more keenly. We notice more, and in the process, we return to what is sacred.
Next: How to find time for yourself