Monday, June 01, 2009

Being Alone...or not.

I spent some time this week with a young man who told me that he didn’t like to be alone. He said that when he’s alone his head gets filled with unpleasant memories; things he did that he should not have done, mistakes he made, things he wished never happened. It was uncomfortable for him, he said, and so he did everything he could to keep from being by himself.

I didn’t say anything to him then but the next day I had the occasion to be with him, again. I told him that everyone is like that, to some extent, which is why all of us have so many radios and televisions and computers, why we spend so much time with hobbies and working, why some people drink and use other drugs, why gossip and sports are such popular past times.

Quakers have addressed this phenomenon. Fox, Penington and others in the first generation saw this as Christ, or the Light, or the Spirit working in us—showing us the parts of our lives, as manifested in these uncomfortable thoughts, that need to be addressed.

If we paid attention to these, fearlessly and humbly holding these things so as to deal with them, repenting of them (such repentance going beyond mere remorse but also including a resolution to not repeat them and even to acknowledging the wrong doing to others and seeking reconciliation with them) then we would be changed, transformed spiritually, and moved along toward the maturity, the wholeness, the fitness for God’s purposes called “perfection" in the Quaker patois.

If we dismissed this discomfort—either by fleeing from the opportunity to experience it or by rationalizing our behavior ("He had it coming," or "Sure, it was wrong, but under the circumstances, what else could I do?")—then our hearts, as those of Pharaoh and those addressed by Isaiah and Jeremiah, would be hardened and it would be even more difficult for us to hear and heed the voice that was calling us.

Buddhist spiritual literature, and that of other traditions, contains similar writing. Things with which we are uncomfortable about our past should be “held” and “felt” and we can, in contemporary American Buddhist terms, become “softened” to them. This is part of the spiritual transformation sought and sometimes named “enlightenment.”

I don’t know that any of this sank in with this young man, who is not apparently spiritual in any way. Perhaps what I had to say will never be useful to him, perhaps someday, in the context of some other experience, it will come to mind. I cannot say that it will, or even that it was my intention that it should. It was just the right response to what he revealed to me about himself.

This was not a moment of intentional evangelism, although it has been interpreted as such by a Friend with whom I shared it. Perhaps it was, notwithstanding my lack of intention. I am reminded something George Fox wrote in his Journal. It is something to the effect that he never converted anyone to Christ. All he did was lead them to it and leave them there. Christ, he often is quoted to have said, has come to teach his people, himself.

So I don’t know what any of this will mean to him. What I hope, though, is that he will come to know that all of us share his discomfort at being alone to some degree or another, that when he is alone he is not really alone, at all, and that when he feels uncomfortable with things he has done he is not being punished—he is being changed.


forrest said...

Part of the trouble may be the assumption that these past errors demand suffering as a sort of atonement payment. He is resisting and you, seemingly are insisting, but what's needed, I think is that he risk suffering by facing his discomforts. There is no obvious need for either punishment or excuses in that process; he needs to be open to new ways of looking at and dealing with similar situations.

Marcus Borg, writing about the word we translate as "repent," says that its roots suggest "going beyond the mind that you have." That is, I would think, that we recognize and reduce our resistance to the creative inspirations of God.

Hystery said...

As a person with a big ol' superego and an obsessive compulsive and depressive personality, I find that I am often tormented by real and imagined failings in my past. While being alone is important to me, in times when my solitude leads me to morbid and guilt-ridden obsessive contemplation of my past, I find that community and companionship is a much better for me than solitude. I need the assistance of others' rationalism, compassion and perspective to keep me from falling.

Tmothy Travis said...

I hear you.

It's why one of our testimonies is "community."

As I have written in the past, our Quaker "community" is not made up of people who share an interest with us (like the "medical" or the "bicycling" communities). It's made up of those upon whom we rely to help meet our needs, and whose needs we contribute to meeting, as well.

That's a wider circle, of course, than may be apparent at first thought.

No one should be alone when her or his perfection requires the help of a friend.

Tmothy Travis said...

Thanks, Forest

I don't know that the "suffering" of the discomfort of transformation is part of some price of admission or a debt incurred in the sense of atonement. That's notional--something that you and I can never really know.

But the discomfort is empirical and accompanies any kind of change--not just spiritual transformation. A child's a anxiety at going from elementary to middle school is not, for example, an emotional "fine" of some kind that she must pay, in the sense that she must pay some "debt" to God. But it is real and she is subject to it though "guitless."

I do not "insist" that this young man spend time alone, or that he not try to keep his mind distracted. I don't insist that very many people do very many things. When led--and faithful to those leadings-- I share my experiences for whatever value they may have to anyone listening.

The early Quaker experience I recounted in my post--and the outcome of change to which those writers witnessed--described my own experience. Whether it is Christ changing me as I abide in that which comes to mind, or I am "acknowledging, holding and softening" to them or something g else is going on entirely it is the outcome that matters. I am better off for the change, as are those who deal with me every day.

It's a witness--not an edict.

Anonymous said...

I know a young man who is going through a serious case of not wanting to be alone with himself and his way of avoiding facing these uncomfortable feelings is to drink. He's clearly in a slide towards full-blown alcoholism that started about a year ago and is getting rapidly worse of late. I've run out of ways to tell him he is exaggerating the amount of guilt that he feels over some past mistakes. When he thinks about these old issues he feels he has to drink to turn his mind off. It's hard for me to accept that I can't do any more for him at this point and that it's up to him to respond to the inner light.