There are times when a bear has to be alone with himself,
to think his own thoughts and sing his own songs.
~ G. Hayes, Bear By Himself
“And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely place” (Luke 4:42). Most of the time, the Gospels depict Jesus going off to lonely places to pray. Not this time. He’d been healing and preaching, and he went off to a lonely place just to be alone. To get the hell away from people. How un-Christlike, right?
It’s a radical notion going off by ourselves, especially for Christians. It just doesn’t seem right — no people, no distractions, no agendas, no to-do lists. Just a lonely place. It sounds so selfish and unproductive.
Plus, in this age of tweeting and texting and selfies and constant cyber-connection, is it even healthy to be alone? Isn’t it somehow disordered?
Well, yes, it is. To seek isolation and aloneness is to be out of order today. Ah, but what a glorious disorder it is!
So, how can we teach this to our kids? Their whole world is wholly given over to that connectedness we throwbacks instinctively rebel against. Is it possible to instill in children an appreciation — even a tolerance — for being alone?
Perhaps. Among other things, we grown-ups have to be good role models. And toward that end, we would do well to return to some of the stories we read in our youth that first introduced us to the value of being alone. Re-read them first, maybe a couple times. Then read them to kids — any kids. Preferably your own.
The Story of Ferdinand, M. Leaf (1936)
This is aloneness for kids par excellence. Ferdinand only wants to be left alone to sit in the shade of his cork tree in the pasture and smell the flowers.
He’s not antisocial. He’s not neurotic or maladjusted. He just relishes quiet and solitude and flowery scents.
Like solitude-lovers today, Ferdinand’s odd behavior attracted attention, including, naturally, his concerned mother. But Ferdinand exhibited a contentment and integrated wholeness that was convincing. “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”
To be alone is not necessarily to be lonesome — a key point. And when they compelled Ferdinand to enter the ring, his contentment and integrated wholeness enabled him to refuse the fight with ease — another key point. The interior calm that accompanies familiarity with aloneness often orients one to peacemaking instead of aggression. Ferdinand, a solitary and a peacemaker, achieved inner peace. “And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”
The Giving Tree, Silverstein (1964)
This is aloneness of a different sort: imposed, not chosen; endured, not delighted in.
Still, the tree — abandoned, forlorn, hoping against hope, and loving without limit — can draw on hidden reserves, much like Ferdinand did. This time, however, the foe to be faced is not an outsider — a matador, for example — but rather the ego within.
The tree’s boy takes and takes, heedless of the tree’s pain and alienation. The tree does her best to keep faith and believe in the boy’s fundamental love for her, although it gets harder and harder as the tale progresses. “And the tree was happy…,” the narrator declares toward the end, “but not really.”
Here’s an aloneness that we all have to face sooner or later — an aloneness of rejection and even betrayal. Can we endure it?
The tree did so, and enjoyed a reconciliation of sorts in the end. Regardless, the happiness she experiences when reunited with her boy is a happiness she really possessed all along — or, rather, not a happiness so much as a joy. For her strength, like her love, was not dependent on feelings. Love is an act of the naked will, and we’re capable of love whether in community or in isolation.
The Porcupine Whose Name Didn’t Matter, M. Bell (1970)
This is a cheat, I suppose, because really it’s a short story rather than a book. (Note: The entire collection in which it is found, The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell, is definitely worth your time, especially the first story, “Barrington Bunny.”)
“The Porcupine” tells the tale of Joggi, a solitary curmudgeon and misanthrope (if that term can be applied to a porcupine) who refuses even the minimal communal attachment represented by the exchange of names.
It doesn’t matter what my name is! Can’t you see? What difference does it make? I won’t tell you what my name is, because it doesn’t matter!
Joggi’s isolation is chosen, not imposed — unlike the tree’s. But Joggi’s voluntary aloneness is fraught with misery, not joy — unlike Ferdinand’s. Joggi’s separation from his fellow creatures is not really solitude, but rather a lonely kind of exile.
Still, when fate (read: providence) brings Joggi in contact with Gamiel, a mortally wounded, blinded racoon, an ember of charity glows red within. It’s as if the isolation that Joggi had cultivated for so long as a protection against the world had morphed at some point into a solitude that made possible sacrificial action and love — and the ability to receive love as well.
They made a home for one another, Joggi and Gamiel. Not a regular home exactly; not a place. More like a shelter from the excessive pain that each of them had known…. Gamiel didn’t mind when Joggi was silent for hours at a time. He could sense the beat. Thumping, ongoing, steady. There. It was enough.
It’s as if two crippled hermits found each other and somehow managed to piece together a communal life together while retaining their separateness — almost like a couple Carthusians in the wilderness: together, yet alone; in community, yet isolated.
In the end, of course, Joggi tells Gamiel his name, but only after the latter’s death. It’s a moment of redemption that was cultivated, over time, in silence and sacrifice, solitude and solicitude. It’s a moment of redemption for the reader as well.
Aloneness, I’m suggesting, by its very nature, is oriented to peace and love. That being the case, maybe you’re like me in thinking a mite more aloneness would do us some good. And our kids, too. And the world.
A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.