I have a friend – a valued friend, I should say – who I rarely see or speak to. It is common for men to have friendships like this, they have meaning and importance, but they are glancing, male friends slide past one another like wet seals on a slippery rock.
Even though I haven’t actually spoken to him in depth for weeks, perhaps months, my friend and I stay in touch as best we can, he messages me frequently, always on the fly, always on the run.
When he does call, he is always heading out the door, sitting down for dinner, going to take a more important call. He is always asking me how I am, but never really knows, because that takes time and there is no space in his head to know. He is always complaining about how busy it is, but he does not know that this is because he wants and needs to be busy.
And he is one of my best friends.
Men ask me all of the time how I am, and I always say the same thing: “fine.” I know if I say anything else, I will be wasting their valuable time. They don’t really want to know.
Better to seem to want to know, but not actually know. There is no time for that, we are not available for that.
He is familiar to me, most of the male friends I have known are very much like him. I am very much like him. Many men are like both of us.
In recent years, I have come to value solitude.
“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”
Every bit of true self-awareness and spirituality that I have ever experienced has come out of solitude and inner reflection. And I have so long a way still to go.
“All of us are alone,” says Henri Nouwen.”No other person will completely feel like we do, think like we do, act like we do. Each of us is unique, and our aloneness is the other side of our uniqueness. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we all it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful.”
The enlightened man acknowledges how far he has to go, he never thinks he is there. He knows he is not yet enlightened, and seeks for more understanding. He knows he has not created space in his mind for divinity and true friendship.
You know men like this, I am sure.
They always have an out in case things get too close, they always have a foot out the door, a hand on the phone off button. They are always busy, rushing from one place to the other, spinning in circles, they are afraid to pause or their world will collapse, their idea of security will implode.
I was one of these men, and I suppose I still am sometimes. I didn’t realize how broken I was until I was getting older. But so what? It is never too late to awaken.
Like so many men raised to be afraid of life, many men work day and night, day after day, to search for the security that was denied them earlier in life. What, really, do most men learn in their youth? To catch a football? To hide their feelings? At some point, say the prophets, the wise man understands that security can only come from the inside, not the outside. It has nothing to do with money.
This is the only way many men can find security, by moving so quickly and continuously that they never really have to come nose to nose with life, to truly know themselves, or be available to others, even their wives and children. Men like us put up walls around everyone. We go outward, not inward.
Every spiritual or respected spiritual writer and philosopher – Plato, Aristotle, Merton, Richard Rohr, Erich Fromm, the Dalai Lama, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Christ himself – has written or preached the power of solitude to discover the center of ourself, to go inward, to get close to our idea of God, to heal ourselves to set us free to live the lives we were destined to live, not the lives chosen for us by others, or that we blindly pursue.
This is how we make ourselves available to others. Or not. This is where true friendships – or meaningful worship – begins.
Men, write Rohr, are afraid of real life, and have created the great myth of western civilization – their own sense of security and significance.
The myth of men is written by men who have controlled the power, the money, the corporations, the church, the military, the media discussions on morality. What they believe to be reality is mostly a construct mostly of men who have never worked on their inner lives.
They have not gone inside, they have not learned trust, empathy, vulnerability, contemplation or poetry. The civilization they have built is increasingly broken and sick, violent or in conflict.
Their myth is crumbling, under siege from almost everyone else in a troubled world. More and more, it seems their time may soon be up. As always, they have no sense of this, many see the new world as radical and escaped genies that have to be stuffed back in the bottle.
Mostly, they struggle to go backwards.
In his solitude, Christ went to lonely and isolated places to pray, there to grow in the awareness, says Nouwen, that all the power and meaning he had was given him by others. He saw his own humility, and was thus able to stand in the shoes of others and understand them. He shed judgement and intolerance in that way, he said
It is quite remarkable to see this strain of uniformity in early Christian and contemporary spiritual thought. They all say the same thing, really, in order for men to find the space to be available to others, they must find the time to go inward, not outward, and be alone with themselves. Solitude is their gateway to spiritual awareness.
“Ask me not where I live or what I like to eat,” wrote Merton, “ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully that.”
Solitude, each of them writes, is what creates the space in our minds and heads and souls to find out who we are and wish to be. Solitude creates the space to be available to others, to have true friendships.
When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude,” wrote Merton, ” it can no longer be held together by love; and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, then society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”
Watch the news.
Men, writes Rohr, do not have a movement of their own because they are not aware that they need one, they deny the sorry reality of themselves.
Men who cannot abide solitude or a life of balance, will move naturally towards the outer world of things .They will build, manipulate, excuse, legislate, dominate, order and flirt with whatever they bother to touch, but they will not really touch it at all, because these men never learn the inside of things.
They have little subtlety or the ability to harmonize or live with the paradox of mystery.
Life surprises, confounds and thwarts them.
The unenlightened man, who never knows solitude, engineers and tinkers with reality, but never really lives in reality or truth.