A couple years ago I took on an assignment that scared me to death.
I had so much anxiety about this that I was losing sleep for weeks and even months in advance. The assignment? Be alone and be quiet.
Let me put this in perspective for you so that you have a better idea of why the very idea was so alarming to me. I am the youngest of 10 children. I shared a bedroom, sometimes even a bed, with one or more siblings until I was a teenager. I did almost nothing alone in my life. I am a man who has never lived alone, but always with family or friends until I was married. Less than two years after we were married, we started welcoming children. I liked being with others – that was normal and comfortable to me. There was always someone to talk with; argue with; laugh with. I was never alone. I was never in a quiet atmosphere.
Fast forward a bit…my career in radio was (and is) surrounded by noise. In radio, silence is bad. It mean’s something has gone wrong. It means something or someone has failed. My ears wore the headphones that pumped the sounds I needed to monitor into my head. The radio was always on at home, in the car, on the patio – everywhere and always. At night, since my wife was unable to sleep with the radio on, I ran a fan to keep the noise going. I was uncomfortable with silence. I despised it. So when the assignment of solitude and silence was given to me – I panicked.
I went to a little hermitage at Pacem In Terris (Peace On Earth) a retreat center in Saint Francis, MN. My task was to spend 5 nights in seclusion and silence. No radio. No phone. No computer. No electricity. No plumbing. No clock. No human interaction. My little cabin (a hermitage) had a bed, rocking chair, small screen porch, gas lamp, gas hot plate with tea kettle, gas heat, a few candles and a basin for washing up. The staff brought a gallon or two of water to my door step each day, and some bread, fruit, cheese etc. They never knocked or spoke to me – in fact I never even knew they had come till I saw the daily supplies when I opened the door to head to the nearby outhouse. This is how I spent my terrifying week alone. The terror vanished almost immediately.
I arrived about 3pm, was brought to my quarters and the staff left my in peace. I unpacked my luggage, took off my watch and placed it in the closet, and sat down in the screen porch. Now – in order to truly enter into the quiet, one has to quiet the mind as well. I brought nothing to entertain myself. No deck of cards, no writing or research project. Not even reading material other than my prayer book (they supplied a Bible.) I wanted to experience this fully. I wanted it to be difficult as I knew from past experience that I grow best through difficulties.
I don’t have any stories of anxiety to tell about being disconnected with the world. To my surprise, I entered into the quiet rather easily. It took a short time to adjust to the passage of time, however. Not that I was bored or that it was monotonous, but simply that I did not know what time it was. Much of my life, I discovered, was anchored to a clock. For example, that afternoon (or evening – I wasn’t sure which) I started to become hungry. I was troubled because I didn’t know if it was supper time yet. How do I know when to eat if I don’t know what time it is? The answer is obvious, of course. You can come up with the answer without any difficulty at all. I, however, wrestled with it a while. Then it dawned on me to eat when I was hungry. Simple. I don’t need a clock to tell me that.
Later that evening (it was mid-September and sunset was about 7:00pm) after it was dark I wondered what time it was again? Is it bed time yet? How do I know when to go to bed? The answer was painfully obvious again, but I didn’t quite get it still. I asked myself, “Are you tired?” The answer was “Yes.” Then go to bed. I did so. Then sometime in the night, I woke up. I was wide awake. Wide awake! Still it was pitch black out. Was it an hour after I went to bed? Was it the middle of the night? Was it an hour till dawn? I had no idea. This frustrated me too. I wanted to sleep good that night. I wanted to be well rested for the next day, because…because…hmmm. I couldn’t finish that thought. Why did I need to be well rested for the next day? I had no schedule. I had no appointments. Nobody was counting on me for anything. There was no place I had to be or anything I had to achieve. My only job was to be secluded and take each moment as it came. So I got out of bed and sat in the chair a while, made a cup of tea and listened to the quiet. After I had been awake for quite a while, I went back to bed. It was till dark.
The next morning I enjoyed some of the bread and fruit and some more tea and took a walk on the miles of trails available. I took lots of walks that week. I took lots of naps as well. I listened to the water fowl on the lake; watched the frogs on the lily pads; observed the squirrels and chipmunks; listened to unidentified forest creatures prowl in the night outside the window; ate fruit and cheese and bread; and I never had a more wonderful experience in my life. The week I so dreaded has become one that I now crave to repeat. You see, this solitude I feared actually didn’t happen. I wasn’t alone after all. I wasn’t unplugged. I was finally plugged in.
Check out this audio and these videos of news reports about Pacem in Terris