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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Living in the Tension of Isolation and Solitude of Heart

Written by: on March 20, 2015

solitudeWhen 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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]  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.[4]  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”[5]

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[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8]  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?

 

 

[1] Shelley Trebesch, “Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.” (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), vii.

[2] Ibid., viii.

[3] Ibid., 19.

[4] Robert Quinn, “Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within.” (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 271.

[5] Henri Nouwen, “Reaching Out: The Three Movement of the Spiritual Life.” (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 333-345, Kindle.

[6] Shelley Trebesch, “Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.” (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 75.

 [7] Henri Nouwen, “Reaching Out: The Three Movement of the Spiritual Life.” (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 426-430, Kindle.

[8] Ibid., 389-93, Kindle.

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

10 responses to “Living in the Tension of Isolation and Solitude of Heart”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Miriam, a wonderful post this week. I sense your deep involvement on this topic, and I especially appreciate your warning about isolation leading to isolation from God and involvement in the world. I especially liked your statement: “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.” In my research, I have found two categories of contemplatives: One (and so many of the early church leaders in this area fit here) were those who did exactly as you mentioned, they found the resources and motivation to reach out through their times of solitude; and two, are those who find contemplation itself an end and goal…that connecting with God is the achievement and end of the story. I find many of our contemporary instructors in contemplation sadly miss the call and heart of God and His concern for hurt of the world that comes from spending time with God, that must result in movement outward. So, yes, it is a great (and common) danger to stay in isolation (and honestly, there are times when it seems like a nice and cozy place to hide). But if we really meet God there, can we honestly stay? I think not. Thanks for your wonderful insights, Miriam!

    • Miriam Mendez says:

      John, I appreciate your comments. I liked your comment—“But if we really meet God there, can we honestly stay?” And I agree with you—No we cannot. We can never stay or be the same once we meet God! Why would we want to? Thanks, John.

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    So good to read this post Miriam. Thanks for engaging this topic as you have. Henri Nouwen is an influential author for me as well. I appreciate your thoughts: ” Isolation can push us into comparing ourselves with others, competing with others and combating with others.” There is something paradoxically profound with this concept of isolation. Something that certainly Jesus understood. Which makes it all the more remarkable at how many people who enter ministry seem to consider the concepts of isolation and solitude to be strange or counter-productive. You ask about how we might live in the tension: For me it has come slowly, for sure. But the recognition of how important it is to pull myself away from the always pressing ‘needs’ around me is important. It correlates with practices of prayer and rest, but essentially, I have tried to follow a discipline of: an hour a day, a day a week, a week a year. The Lord has taught me much through that. How about you?

    • Miriam Mendez says:

      Deve…an hour a day, a day a week, a week a year…yes! The important thing is to begin. I know that if I am not intentional about taking that hour, day or week (whatever it is) it is not going to happen. In those times of reflection, prayer and rest I am able to find myself—and most importantly—listen deeply to God. Thanks Deve!

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    Miriam, firstly great post. Secondly, I’ve been thinking of you and praying about your transition process. Now, your post was encouraging because I were able to show how isolation and solitude might be similar yet different as well. I struggled with this week’s reading most because isolation carries a negative meaning for me. So I appreciate you rounded view on the subject and I like your statement, ” Isolation tends to separate us from others and from God. We can be in danger of focusing only in our desert and wilderness experience.”

    Thank you!

    • Miriam Mendez says:

      Michael! Yes, I agree—isolation seems to carry a negative meaning to me as well. I think of it as a very “lonely” word.
      Michael, hope to see you soon, my friend.

  4. Liz Linssen says:

    Such a great blog Miriam. Really appreciate what you wrote about solitude, especially where you quote Nouwen, “…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.” I’ve never seen this expressed in writing before, but it’s so true!
    Personally, I know that God alone can meet my deeper, inner needs. Only God can provide the security, love, and faithfulness we all so desperately need. Once we receive our ‘daily bread’ from our Father, then we are equipped to focus on serving others. Thank you Miriam for a great and thought-provoking read.

  5. Miriam…
    Such good and thoughtful work in your writing. You ask or rather I think you are inviting us to hold the tension of isolation and solitude. Thinking about the identity stripping that happens in and through isolation I wonder what isolation might be if we have learned the lessons and practices of solitude. Would solitude transform isolation? Would we respond to isolation in the same manner if we have cultivated solitude as a consistent rhythm in our life?

  6. mm Julie Dodge says:

    I love your distinction between isolation and solitude, Miriam. Throughout my life I have also experienced multiple seasons of stripping away as God transformed me into His next direction. There were times when it was more of a struggle – when I wrestled and screamed and shouted and said this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Until He cradled me in His arms and said rest. During other times, I have stepped into the solitude with more trust, knowing that God is faithful and that He will lead me where He will. In my present life, I find that the value of solitude with God is more important – more of a daily practice – if even briefly. It’s that trust that perhaps comes from a long relationship. Perhaps it is maturity. I’m not sure. What I do know is that apart from that quiet space, as you said, it is far too easy to get caught up in busy and stress and not appreciate the present.

    At breakfast this morning, my mom was asking about what I will do this week since I’m on Spring Break. I said that I had work to do – catching up on school, mainly. In part I am trying to approach this week with a balance of getting things done and taking time for quiet. To which mom, who wanted to spend a day shopping, responded by saying, “I know, you’re crazy busy.” I said no, I’m trying not to be crazy busy. I I could easily fill my time, but really, right now I am longing for that refreshment that comes with quiet.

  7. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Miriam, You’re thoughtful as always! Interesting you pointed out how isolation leads to separation from others and God. Love the insights from Nouwen’s book that you used to describe the tension between isolation and solitude of heart. I think Nouwen’s is right, “loneliness or isolation as something that we manage to numb ourselves through our desire to be busy in our search for recognition and success.” May the Lord help us find our identity in Him.

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