Surprised by Solitude, Part One

First of two posts on solitude, drawn from the experience of the prophet Jonah.


I think it’s worth considering, as I read the book of Jonah, that the prophet didn’t know that God would send a fish to swallow him up. Nothing in the text indicates that he did: He didn’t say “If you could just drop me by that big ole fish over there . . .” No, “Throw me into the water,” he tells his shipmates, and he and they alike fully expected that he was being thrown to his death. Jonah assumed he would die in defiance of God’s call on him to go to Nineveh.

I wonder how Jonah’s tombstone would read. “Here lies Jonah—he kept to himself”? “Here lies Jonah—alone at last”? However it might read, Jonah would be remembered in death as a prophet who refused to prophesy, who would rather be left alone, thank you very much.

There are, I think, at least three ways of being alone. There’s circumstantial aloneness—we find ourselves alone, as when my wife has to work late or all our friends have other plans. I have a friend who lives by himself and doesn’t want to; he goes to sleep alone every night and wakes up alone every morning, and in between he goes about his business. But he wishes he were married; he finds himself alone, but he’s not happy about it. Another friend of mine is unmarried and perfectly content: she goes to sleep alone and wakes up alone, and in between she goes about her business, and she’s happy with her life. Aloneness as a circumstance is a perfectly legitimate way to be, but it’s not the kind of aloneness that we’re considering in the curious case of Jonah.

Another way of being alone is more assertive. We hit our limit in our interactions with other people—coworkers whose demands on our time become tiresome, or children who never stop needing us, or friends, neighbors and church members whose quirkinesses gradually morph into nettlesome annoyances—and declare “me-time.” With me-time we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t just cogs in a machine but distinct persons; we may rediscover ourselves from time to time by getting away from everyone else. In some cases this can be healthy: Folk singer Dar Williams wrote of her therapy sessions—a sort of guided me-time—“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” In some cases, of course, me-time can devolve into something tragic, when we start to believe the insidious notion that we have no need of anyone else, when we forget to remember that the other people around us aren’t just annoying or needy drains on our energy but themselves distinct persons who deserve our honor and respect.

But in any case, like circumstantial aloneness, assertive aloneness is not the type of aloneness under consideration here. No, I see Jonah as a case study in a third type of aloneness: solitude.

“But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” The aloneness Jonah enters into here is orchestrated by God, making it something of a sacramental experience. Henri Nouwen, the late great writer on Christian spirituality, called solitude the “furnace of transformation” because, among other reasons, solitude is uncomfortable. In solitude God puts us to the test.


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