Solitude and connection

A friend recently sent me this article by William Major in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Major is an associate English professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College. He allows his students to engage in an exercise similar to one I do in my own course here at Baylor. However, he is a lot more bold about his class assignment. In exchange for extra credit at the end of the semester, Dr. Major has his students give him their cell phones for FIVE DAYS! I must admit that when I first read this article, I I closely clutched my own smartphone at the thought of losing it for five days. But this desire, this need, this dependency on my cell phone intrigued me to read on.

As Dr. Major discussed how this experiment affects his students, I was reminded of an exercise I offer my own class for course credit.  I teach an introduction to human development/intro to college life course that covers five dimensions: intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. When we enter the spiritual dimension toward the end of the semester, I give my students the opportunity to earn class credit by practicing 8 hours of silence and solitude. In this time, they are expected to talk to no one, to put away all electronic devices (except they can listen to some music), and just be. They can read or write or think or exercise or walk or pray. But they must be in solitude. As I read Dr. Major’s summaries of some of his students’ responses, they strongly reflected my own students’ musings. Both Dr. Major and my students discussed feeling fearful, lonely, and empty at the beginning of the exercise. But as they practice solitude, students start to experience breakthrough. Many of my students have had a total revelation during these 8 hours that they have the wrong major and make a huge life change for the better. But the breakthrough only comes through the difficulty of silence and the loneliness that is felt in the absence of constant communication.

As I read Dr. Major’s comments, I was convicted of my own reliance on my smartphone and other technologies. How often am I just sitting in line, heck even sitting at a stop light, that I don’t grab my phone to check emails, texts, etc. simply out of pure boredom? Do I have what it takes to break free and practice solitude?

As I reflect on this question, I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s book, Thoughts on Solitude. This book is an exquisite piece by the Trappist monk which was borne of his own practice of solitude. He talks about the spiritual discipline of living in solitude and the need for feeling deprived and poor. Such an amazing piece. It will move and change you. But yet it would not have been inspired or created in the absence of solitude, and I am stuck by that. Such beauty, such gem-like work is created by humans when they enter into a place of solitude.

I am struck by how many great thinkers and writers express the importance of solitude. Dr. Major, in his experiment with his students, notes that his whole assignment is based off of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which Thoreau emphasizes the importance simplicity and solitude.

So I am left asking myself how to strike a balance between solitude and connecting. It’s not that I think that technology’s ability to connect us is bad. Quite the contrary. In fact, I think that connecting is as important as solitude, but both must be approached properly. I think we must ebb and flow between connecting and pulling away in solitude. For there is a time for everything. A time to connect, and a time to be alone and think. Solitude remains essential because with all the noise in this world, it’s hard to be centered, original, or process one’s life. However, without connections, we may miss out on the greatest joys in life because we were born social creatures and social creatures we must remain. “For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Friendship”). But we should seek this communication that the great age of technology provides us with as something to be treasured, not something to kill time.

“For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Friendship”

Let me seek my friends and loved ones not with time to kill, but with hours to live. And let them feel a need within me, but not the emptiness I feel in the absence of constant communication. Help me to utilize the things I have around me to become a better version of myself. To be interested and interesting. To create and inspire and to be inspired. To become a better human and to love well.


About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

2 responses to “Solitude and connection

  • badbadwebbis

    I find that when I walk or run for exercise I do better when I don’t have my iPod – it also helps me focus my thoughts on my reading and my research. I end up directing my attention internally rather than on aural stimulus, and my brain is allowed to make connections that I previously blocked with sound.

  • boston

    Yes I would like that book 🙂

    Oh you should read Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart

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