Let’s face it–the demands of leadership are all too real. At times those demands seem as unrelenting as the pounding waves on the ocean shore. And at times, we all are tempted to toss in the towel.
How do you keep in the game? From one traveler to another, I’d like to offer something for your consideration.
Through the past several years, I have found the practice of SOLITUDE to be one of the most significant ways to keep me engaged and prepared for the challenges of leadership. This practice has changed me and is changing me—and how I lead.
Solitude is the practice of being absent from people and things so that I can be present with God. There’s not much more to it. But defining it and doing it can be two very different realities.
Stating the obvious, we live in a world of noise—noise that comes at us from all directions. A lot of it unpreventable. A lot of it self-imposed. A vast majority of it distracting. And so much of it soul-numbing. Traffic horns that announce impatience. Flat-screens that decorate the walls of public spaces with never-ending news-feeds. Podcasts that echo in our ears. Need I go on? God’s gift, His antidote to the buzz and chaos of life is solitude.
Why is solitude so important? Perhaps the greatest value of solitude is the humbling reminder that I am not as important as I so often believe I am. In the beauty (and often disturbing) quiet of solitude, I find the ability to “right-size” myself. I am able to find my appropriate place in God’s story. I revisit old, familiar, yet often-shelved truths: that the more I am emptied of myself, the greater the space for God to fill me with Himself.
There is something very life-giving about solitude. It shapes you. Henri Nouwen calls solitude the “furnace of transformation”. He says that in solitude “…I get rid of my scaffolding: no friends to talk with, no telephone calls to make, no meetings to attend, no music to entertain, no books to distract, just me–naked, vulnerable, weak, sinful, deprived, broken–nothing.”
In solitude, I re-center myself. It’s a time for spiritual inventory–a chance to open the books of my life and to account for its status. What’s the current trajectory of my life? What’s the state of my heart? Am I becoming more gracious, more kind? Or is my heart slowly calcifying? Have I let a root of bitterness take hold?
I look at solitude like I look at my marriage. Throughout the week, I have ordinary, everyday conversations with Pattie. But in the rhythm of our relationship, we have a time during the week that is uninterrupted, extended and devoted to enjoying each other. In those moments, our relationship moves to a more profound level. That’s what happens in solitude.
These moments of solitude afford the gift of a mid-course correction. In the quiet, I review the game-film of my attitudes, my relationships, my leadership, my decisions, my aspirations. I come face to face with the truth. I move beyond the obvious and reflect on the small, subtle stuff in my life that if left unchecked would blunt the impact I want my life to have.
In solitude, I find that my conversations with God move to a much deeper dimension. Greater honesty–less editing. Greater freedom–less self-justification. Greater enjoyment–less duty.
Some view solitude as an escape from reality. I don’t see it that way. Rather, I see it as a deliberate choice to disengage for the moment so that I can re-engage again and to do so in a more substantial manner. When I return from solitude, I find that my soul is refreshed. I find that my perspective is clearer. I find that as I have looked more carefully at my own sin that I am not nearly as judgmental of other’s shortcomings I find that my smile is easy, real. I find that the old self is less evident and the new self more apparent. I find that my reservoir of compassion has been replenished. And I find a new readiness to embrace the challenges of life and leadership.
When I seek solitude, my goal is to find a place that detaches me as much as possible from noise that is unrelenting and scenery that is all too familiar. It could be a local park, a prayer garden at a church, a cove along a secluded beach. The options are more available than you might think. (When all else fails, sitting in your car in a scenic setting works well!).
Since I live in an area surrounded by the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, one of my favorite places for solitude is found in its many hiking trails. In just a few minutes, I can be immersed in total solitude, surrounded by the beauty and majesty of one small slice of God’s creation, far from the sights and sounds of the city.
We all know it. Solitude does not come automatically, naturally. You need to plan for it. You need to build it into your life. It needs to become part of your weekly rhythm.
I find that I now crave solitude. It is treasured time to be alone with my God. It is a time to listen to His voice. And to hear Him remind me to “be still and know that I am God.”
Poet Wendell Berry writes that “Best of any song is bird song in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet.” He’s on to something. You must first have the quiet for it is in the quiet of solitude that you hear the song that your Father longs to sing.
He’ll be waiting for you. And the light is always on.