Out of Solitude
Henri Nouwen

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed.
The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases.
He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house
and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him,
and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"
Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else-to the nearby villages-so I can preach there also.
That is why I have come." So he traveled throughout Galilee,
preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Mark 1:32-29

Our Life in Action

It Is not so difficult to see that, in our particular world, we all have a strong desire to accomplish something. Some of us think in terms of great dramatic changes in the structure of our society. Others want at least to build a house, write a book, invent a machine, or win a trophy. And some of us seem to be content when we just do something worthwhile for someone. But practically all of us think about ourselves in terms of our contribution to life. And when we have become old, much of our feelings of happiness or sadness depend on our evaluation of the part we played in giving shape to our world and its history. As Christians we even feel a special call to do something good for someone: give advice, comfort, cast out a devil or two, and maybe even preach the good news from place to place.

But although the desire to be useful can be a sign of mental and spiritual health in our goal-oriented society, it can also become the source of a paralyzing lack of self-esteem. More often than not we not only desire to do meaningful things, but we often make the results of our work the criteria of our self-esteem. And then we not only have successes, we become our successes. When you are in the habit of giving .speeches in this country, you find that the older you get, the longer your introducers speak, since they feel obligated to list all your accomplishments from your college days to the present.

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks.

We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments-the results of our actions- to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people's lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.

In this success-oriented world, our lives become more and more dominated by superlatives. We brag about the highest tower, the fastest runner, the tallest man, the longest bridge and the best student. (In Holland we brag in reverse: we have the smallest town, the narrowest street, the tiniest house and the most uncomfortable shoes.)

But underneath all our emphasis on successful action, many of us suffer from a deep-seated, low self-esteem and are walking around with the constant fear that someday someone will unmask the illusion and show that we are not as smart, as good or as lovable as the world was made to believe. Once in a while someone will confess in an intimate moment, "Everyone thinks I am very quiet and composed, but if only they knew how I really feel. . . " This nagging self-doubt is at the basis of so much depression in the lives of many people who are struggling in our competitive society. Moreover, this corroding fear for the discovery of our weaknesses prevents community and creative sharing. When we have sold our identity to the judges of this world, we are bound to become restless, because of a growing need for affirmation and praise. Indeed we are tempted to become low-hearted because of a constant self-rejection. And we are in serious danger of becoming isolated, since friendship and love are impossible without a mutual vulnerability.

And so when our actions have become more an expression of fear than of inner freedom, we easily become the prisoners of our self-created illusions.

In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusion of our possessiveness and discover in the center of our own self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It's there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received.

In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness. We can learn much in this respect from the old tree in the Tao story about a carpenter and his apprentice:

A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: "Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?" The apprentice looked at his master and said:

"No . . . why?"
"Well," the carpenter said, "because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax."

In solitude we can grow old freely without being preoccupied with our usefulness and we can offer a service which we had not planned on. To the degree that we have lost our dependencies on this world, whatever world means-father, mother, children, career, success or rewards-we can form a community of faith in which there is little to defend but much to share. Because as a community of faith, we take the world seriously but never too seriously. In such a community we can adopt a little of the mentality of Pope John, who could laugh at himself. When a highly decorated official asked him, "Holy Father, how many people work in the vatican?" he paused a moment then replied, "Oh, about half of them I suppose."

As a community of faith we work hard, but we are not destroyed by the lack of results. And as a community of faith we constantly remind one another that we form a fellowship of the weak, transparent to him who speaks to us in the lonely places of our existence and says: "Do not be afraid. You are accepted."

See also From Solitude to Community to Ministry


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