Ways of Walking to Work


Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.