Paradox, Part II: Solitude and Community

I’m fascinated by something I’ve been reading lately by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It’s this paradox: “Whoever can not be alone should beware of community; whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone” (from Life Together, 82-83).  Willa Cather says something similar: “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship” (Shadows on the Rock, book III, ch.5).

When we start talking about solitude and community, it often quickly gets sidetracked by the introvert/extrovert discussion— how we “recharge” our energy either by being alone or with others.  But solitude and community are concepts that go much deeper.  Apparently, if this paradox is true, then to experience the fullness and depth of each in a satisfying way, we need to learn more about this “inner connection” (Bonhoeffer’s phrase) between the two.

Bonhoeffer states, “Many persons seek community because they are afraid of loneliness.  Because they can no longer endure being alone, such people are driven to seek the company of others…..More often than not, they are disappointed.  They then blame the community for what is really their own fault….In reality they are not seeking community at all, but only a thrill that will allow them to forget their isolation for a short time.  It is precisely such misuse of community that creates the deadly isolation of human beings” (Life Together, 81-82).

This rings true for me.  If I am unable to face myself alone in the light of piercing truth and reality without hiding, then how can I be an unhindered blessing in the lives of my friends, family, faith community?  I have to reckon with my own poverty of spirit—the brokenness that is always present in some way—and be honest about it to myself if I want to experience deeper connection with others.  Please hear what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that I have to fix myself before I can be of use to others.  I believe that’s largely God’s work, and He isn’t through with me yet.

If I have learned to be alone then I can be part of community without the compulsion to hide.  I can, perhaps, serve with more humility and love, speak with wisdom, bear another’s burdens.  Community won’t be where I go with my mask on to disappear among the crowd, or to suck others dry with my neediness.  There are seasons of need in each of our lives in which our family and friends will have opportunity to care for us, and there is nothing to be ashamed of in that.  But if I fear solitude and its work in me, I will never have anything to bring to the table, not even honesty.

On the flip side of the coin, Bonhoeffer says, “Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone….Those who want community without solitude plunge into the void of words and feelings, and those who seek solitude without community perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair” (Ibid., 82-83).  We are made for each other.  We are imprinted with a need for relationship, and it is in relationships that we learn who we are, how to see the world, how to subdue our own egos, and how to love.  And love is the thing.  Some say it isn’t, but I disagree.  Humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception, and too much solitude can pave an easy road for that “bottomless pit” Bonhoeffer described.  We become big in our own eyes, and everything and everyone else diminishes in significance.

Octavio Paz writes, “Man is the only being who feels himself to be alone and the only one who is searching for the Other” (The Labyrinth of Solitude).  Solitude and community exist in a beautiful and delicate tension, like silence and speech.  “One does not exist without the other,” says Bonhoeffer.  We will always be striving for the balance between them, and probably often failing to find it.  But let’s “be and be not afraid” (Tracy Chapman) as we try.

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