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Journey to Solitude

The year 2000 brought the world Cast Away, a most extraordinary film experience. Tom Hanks is cast as a Chuck Nolan, a clock-driven Fed-Ex worker, traveling the world to train other Fed-Ex workers, to teach them how they, also, can live lives battered by the clock. On Christmas Eve, Chuck is called on a last minute overseas trip. His parting words to his girlfriend, Kelly are, “I’ll be right back.”

“Right back” turns into four years: Chuck’s plane crashes over a vast section of the Pacific Ocean, and by a remarkable stroke of luck, he survives and takes refuge in a yellow inflatable raft. The violent waves toss Chuck all night long until, in the wee hours of the morning, he finally gets washed up on the sandy beach of a deserted island. Several Fed-Ex packages from the downed plane turn up on the shore over the course of the next few days, and Chuck opens them to see if their contents can help him survive. But there is one package that he never opens, and the film ends without telling viewers what was inside. After four long years, Chuck is rescued by a cargo ship. He leaves the package, unopened, on a doorstep in rural America just before the credits roll.

In 2003, Fed-Ex created a commercial spoof that has Chuck delivering the mystery package to its long-lost owner, who praises Chuck for taking his Fed-Ex duties so seriously. “What’s inside?” Chuck asks eagerly. “Oh nothing, really,” says the woman at the door. “Just a satellite phone, GPS locater, water purifier, fishing rod, and some seeds.”

If only Chuck had opened a package like that!

Castaway is not based on a true story, but it tells many truths. When Chuck lands on the island, he doesn’t know how to fish or hunt or find shelter. He’s hungry, thirsty and afraid. The smells and sounds are unfamiliar. Who knows what monsters might emerge from the island trees and caves?

In the night, on the beach, Chuck hears a repetitive “plop” sound coming from the darkness. He lies sleepless and terrified till morning when he goes to have a look. He discovers then, to his happy astonishment, that it is actually the sound of falling coconuts filled with nourishing milk and meat. In his loneliness, Chuck had been afraid of the what he might discover by venturing deeper into the island, the place of his exile and abandonment. But taking that inward journey is what ended up saving his life.

Few non-fictional people have ever found themselves stranded alone on any literal island, but there is no one who hasn’t experienced exile on some deserted island of the soul. We all know what loneliness feels like: drab days turning, life carving its long path without a kindred soul in sight. Sometimes it feels just fine. We observe with resignation, like stand-by passengers in a hurried airport terminal, watching the world pass us by.

At other times the pain is excruciating. We want to jump into the activity, to be a part of it, to escape our own inner seclusion. But we can’t. Like Chuck, we’re stranded.

Chuck tried to escape his island one day. He climbed into the inflatable raft and paddled out from shore, but the force of the waves wouldn’t let him pass. He was tossed on a coral reef, where he popped his boat and gashed his leg. Trying to escape the island prematurely was not the answer to Chuck’s loneliness, and it only caused him more pain. It would be four years before a sheet of plastic able to function as a sail was washed ashore. In the intervening time, Chuck ventured into the island and discovered, patiently, its gifts and secrets. By the time the sail came he’d learned how to build a real, wooden raft so he could paddle away safely.

Loneliness is like that island. It can be agonizing; it can drive one near insanity. But loneliness can also be a powerful force for good. Loneliness, if received and explored, can teach us many things and can yield many treasures of the soul.

There are many lonely characters in the Bible. Judas Iscariot is one worth considering. Shame is a powerful isolator. As one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas likely experienced moments of deep intimacy with the Lord and the other eleven. But his betrayal placed him outside of the group, alone. If Judas had but faced his guilt with acceptance and repentance, he might have broken through to peace. He might have journeyed through his shame and into solitude—a quiet, honest place hidden way down deep inside where the Holy Spirit was waiting to heal him. But he never reached that place, because the road there was the haunted road of loneliness, and the whispers of forgiveness in the dark frightened him (like Chuck being scared of wonderful falling coconuts). If only Judas knew that those whispers were what he needed to live, he might have walked on and made it. But he was too afraid.

The story of Adam is a happier one. I grew up hearing that Adam was lonely in the garden, but in fact the Genesis narrative does not tell us how Adam felt about his aloneness. As a figure of human innocence and perfection, I like to imagine that Adam was content in his solitary communion with God.

But then something extraordinary happened: God united Adam with Eve. Just imagine the depths of their connectedness in that unspoiled place! There is no biblical statement to this affect, but I like to think that their relationship was special because Adam knew first how to be alone. Solitude prepared him to experience the fullness of intimacy when the time was ripe.

And then there’s Jesus. He also faced the devil in the desert alone, like we do. I have to think that Jesus, as God incarnate, was the loneliest man who ever lived. But in his aloneness, he encountered his Father. One sees it again and again in his ministry: “And Jesus went out to a lonely place…” He is our model.

Several years ago I was a leader for a group North American students traveling along the east coast of India. We brought the group to a live-in school for blind students and told the North Americans that they would be paired with a blind student for 24 hours. The North Americans would be responsible for helping their partners eat and look after themselves.

But when we arrived at the school gates, we switched the plan on them and distributed professional blindfolds. The students at the school had been told that they would be assigned a blindfolded partner who wanted to understand, in as much as was possible, their world without sight. Everyone participated, myself included.

One of the participants happened to be a close friend of mine, April. At the end the simulation, April told me that her 24 hours in the dark had been very powerful and beautiful. She connected with her partner and the other blind students in profound ways, and with the help of her new friends she was able to explore her other senses in a context that was very unique.

My reaction was different from April’s. And this is perhaps the most shameful and painful-to-tell story I’ve ever written down to share.

When that blinder went on my eyes, I closed in on myself. It was pitch black, and I felt alone. I heard strange noises everywhere—laughing people—the deep, raspy voice of my partner. It scared me. I imagined her face. I had seen many men and women blind in India because of various diseases and disfigurements, and I imagined that my partner had one of these. Terrible pictures came to my mind, and I was afraid. Actually, I wasn’t just afraid of her, though she continues to symbolize in my mind everything I was afraid of. I was afraid because I didn’t know where I was physically, emotionally. And I felt alone in the dark. But instead of venturing deeper into that darkness to explore it creatively, like April, I crawled up and went to sleep. I tried to ignore my loneliness until it went away.

Through that 24-hour simulation, I was presented with the challenge to travel through loneliness into a fresh part of myself, a new level of relationship that didn’t depend on my ability to see other bodies. I was challenged to connect inwardly in a deeper, spiritual way with myself, with my blind partner, and with God.

I don’t know whether I succeeded or failed, but the experience continues to haunt me. At the end of it I took off my blinders and called my partner so I could see her in the way I was used to. She was heartbreakingly beautiful, with a smooth, tragic face, gentle eyes, and dark flowing hair. I felt so ashamed of my superficiality—my inability to see with my heart and my reluctance to make the journey through loneliness into solitude.

Very few are truly comfortable in their aloneness, but those who are have only gotten there by looking their loneliness in the face and mining it for all its gifts. In Let Your Life Speak, Quaker author Parker Palmer quotes Annie Dillard about what we find when we venture inward:

‘In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name…’ Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One is that it will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealization, and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

Why must we go in and down? Because as we do so, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves—the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone ‘out there’ into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

But, says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious… to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives.

Christians who have traveled inward, through loneliness and deeply into solitude, join the fellowship of the broken. The secret of solitude-aloneness is that relationship flourishes there. I think of April and her partner in India. I think of all the children at that school, never seeing each other with their eyes, yet experiencing one anothers love in the midst of shared solitary blindness. And the most extraordinary thing of all about solitude is that we meet God there; in solitude we discover that God is not silent. After all, wherever love is, there is God.

And so we come back to Chuck Nolan. What if he had opened that last Fed-Ex package?

If we continue spiritualizing the story, we can understand why he didn’t, why he couldn’t. Chuck had to learn life on that island—in his loneliness—the hard way. After Chuck settles into his sentence alone, the camera skips forward four years. The picture flashes just in time for viewers to see a hand-carved spear piercing a fish beneath the sparkling sea with artful precision, and your eyes travel up to a lean Tom Hanks: “Chuck,” a skilled island man, wise and fit.

We’re called to that too. Loneliness, by the grace of God, can teach us to be spiritually fit if we take the hard way and enter into it. More than something to be feared, loneliness is an opportunity to embrace with prayer and expectation. There in its depths we will discover love, God, and togetherness.

For further reflection, I recommend The Restless Heart by Ronald Rolheiser, who should receive credit for inspiring the direction of my thoughts.

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