In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of the spiritual benefits of solitude. He notes, though, that not everything that looks like solitude is genuine:
“There is not true solitude except interior solitude.”
Just getting away from others and spending time alone may not qualify as genuine solitude, not if our inner spirit isn’t at peace. Merton’s next sentence explains one barrier to true solitude:
“And interior solitude is not possible for anyone who does not accept his right place in relation to other men.”
So Merton thinks that solitude, seemingly the most isolated of activities, is only possible in the context of relationship. In particular, our capacity for solitude depends on our attitudes concerning who we are in relationship to others. Merton explains this further:
“There is not true peace possible for the man who still imagines that some accident of talent or grace or virtue segregates him from other men and places him above them. Solitude is not separation.”
Early in life, each of us tried to distinguish ourselves from others. One personality theorist believed that as young children we all had a sense of inadequacy or inferiority, and we compensated by striving for superiority. That striving could be benign, a striving to overcome difficulties. It could also become an exaggerated belief in our own importance, often accompanied by denigration of others. It’s hard to give up the tendency to elevate ourselves above others in some way, whether this be by virtue of “talent or grace or virtue,” as Merton noted. He is suggesting that as long as we do this we won’t achieve the inner solitude that makes us receptive to God’s presence.
The older I get, the more I realize that overcoming the tendency to elevate myself above others is a lifelong project. There was a time when I liked to dwell on the traits I thought distinguished me from others. I thought that I was smart, I was hard-working, I was insightful, I was kind. Did these traits really set me apart from others, though? Granted, for each trait I could find people who seemed deficient compared to me. Unfortunately, in each case I also knew people who possessed more of the trait than I did. Maybe I wasn’t so special after all!
There was a part of me–the part that Merton labels the false self–that kept on trying to prove to myself that I really was better than others–maybe not better than everyone, but better than most people. That voice saying “you have a better understanding of that than he did” or “she didn’t do that as well as you could have” still shows up. More and more, though, I’m recognizing that this voice separates me from others and from God. It also leads me away from reality. As Merton says,
“My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside of the reach of God’s will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”
So I’m getting better at recognizing that the temporary rush that comes from imagining myself smarter or better or wiser than others is worthless–or, even more, it’s pernicious. When I start going down that path, I try to turn back as quickly as I can. The delights of self-exaltation quickly turn sour. Those of true solitude and genuine fellowship with others and God never lose their sweetness.