When I think of the word, “isolation” I cannot help but think of the word “solitude” as well. Although these words are synonymous, each of these words conjures up something different for me. Isolation seems to represent rejection or a detachment and separation from something or someone. While the word solitude, seems to represent a quality of being—focused, quiet and centered.
Shelley Trebesch, author of “Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader,” writes that leaders experience several critical periods in which they are set apart from full-time ministry. She calls these experiences “isolation experiences.” The author goes on to explain that these isolation experiences are critical for the development of the leader. Trebesch adds that entry into these “isolation experiences” can be involuntary or voluntary. Trebesch emphatically states that in either case the leader experiences four processes—stripping, wrestling with God, increased intimacy with God, and release for the future. She guarantees that you, yes you, the leader, will enter into your own “isolation experience.” Oh joy!
The author states that a major symptom of isolation is frequently the sense of personal rejection. The personal rejection can be the stripping of their identity as a pastor, president, professor or director. I know that I have experienced a time, or perhaps, several times of my identity being stripped. Yet, over the years I have become a strong believer in the fact that the external world can be changed by altering our internal world. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us build our identity around our knowledge, ministries, competence and even our personalities.
Henri Nouwen’s book, “Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life” refers to our loneliness or isolation as something that we manage to numb ourselves through our desire to be busy in our search for recognition and success. Isolation can push us into comparing ourselves with others, competing with others and combating with others. Nouwen challenges us to learn to transform loneliness or isolation into solitude. He writes,
“It is probably difficult , if not impossible, to move from loneliness (isolation) to solitude without any form of withdrawal from a distracting world…but the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart; it is an inner quality or attitude that does not depend on physical isolation…It seems more important than ever to stress that solitude is one of the human capacities that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a crowd and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center. By attentive living we can learn the difference between being present in loneliness and being present in solitude…When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others”
Isolation tends to separate us from others and from God. We can be in danger of focusing only in our desert and wilderness experience. Trebesch reminds us that “God is faithful to empower your experience of isolation, and God will bring you out of isolation” and I add, God invites us to live out of a solitude of heart. When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others. “Without the solitude of heart, the intimacy of friendship, marriage and community life cannot be creative. Without the solitude of heart, our relationships with others easily become needy and greedy, sticky and clinging, dependent and sentimental, exploitative and parasitic, because without the solitude of heart we cannot experience the others as different from ourselves but only as people who can be used for the fulfillment of our own, often hidden, needs.”
We live in a world where we are constantly being pulled away from our internal world and forced to focus on our external world. But in solitude we can pay attention to our inner self. Nouwen states that our world is not divided between lonely people and solitaries. We constantly fluctuate between isolation and solitude. But when we are able to recognize the difference between these two synonyms and move and develop a sensitivity for this inner field of tension, then we no longer have to feel isolated or lonely and can begin to discern the direction in which God calls us to move. Indeed loneliness can be transformed into solitude of heart. How are you living in this tension?
 Shelley Trebesch, “Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.” (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), vii.
 Ibid., viii.
 Ibid., 19.
 Robert Quinn, “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within.” (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 271.
 Henri Nouwen, “Reaching Out: The Three Movement of the Spiritual Life.” (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 333-345, Kindle.
 Shelley Trebesch, “Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.” (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 75.
 Henri Nouwen, “Reaching Out: The Three Movement of the Spiritual Life.” (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 426-430, Kindle.
 Ibid., 389-93, Kindle.