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Faith and Values: Leaning into solitude can help us find unexpected connections

An illustration by FAVS columnist Sophia Maggio. (Sophia Maggio)
An illustration by FAVS columnist Sophia Maggio. (Sophia Maggio)
By Sophia Maggio For The Spokesman-Review

Yesterday, I physically interacted with four people – from a CDC-certified distance, of course – and two dogs.

For those of us sheltering in houses with loved ones, this might seem like an abysmal amount of socialization. While I currently live alone and am adapting to the silence of an empty house, I know that others are going borderline crazy in too-small spaces with well-meaning but, perhaps, a few too many people.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure which is better: to live alone in a profoundly scary time, or to live in solidarity with other stressed-out people. Sure, they may exacerbate your stress, but they’re almost always available for a vent session or just one more episode of “Tiger King.”

This unanticipated season of life has pushed me to consider the meaning and value of solitude, a practice revered across numerous belief systems. Solitude is often viewed as a way to become closer to God, demanding silence and attention to our craziest, scariest thoughts – what I imagine as our mental gremlins.

Those who choose solitude are not only dubbed mysterious but have also been associated with mysticism, witchcraft and asceticism. The “lone wolf” leans away from us and toward the other: the nocturnal, the morbid, the subterranean.

While lone wolves tend to diverge from social expectations, their pursuit of solitude often brings about both personal and cultural change. I think of our collective fascination with famed artists who create in solitude, driven by a propitious mixture of drugs, black cats and moonlight.

“Without some degree of solitude,” Sangharakshita, a Buddhist teacher, writes in “Reflections on Solitude,” “reflection is impossible, and without prolonged reflection no great work of art was ever brought forth.”

Of course, there are plenty of diurnal artists who create in solitude.

Wolfgang Laib, a German artist, comes to mind: Since the 1990s, he has hand-picked pollen – alone in his village, then arranged the pollen in various geometric arrangements for public viewing. Laib’s meticulous, humble and mostly silent practice is a solo yet highly connective activity, one that returns him to himself, to his physical environment and to those who view his work.

Laib’s work reminds us that solitude is not necessarily dark, depressing, lonely or senseless. Nor is it a static state of being. The solitude that I know – or, at least, that I’ve been coming to know – is an intimate process, a form of emotional labor that can yield beautiful colors: pure, bright, almost offensively cheery yellows, like those seen in Laib’s work.

To me, solitude is also distinct from loneliness. As articulated by author Parker Palmer, solitude “is not about the absence of other people, it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

Although I write in favor of a more intentional form of solitude, it’s certainly easier to experience solitude on “auto-pilot”: to choose schoolwork over self-evaluation, microwaving over mindful cooking, and “Tiger King” over meditation. Yet when I’ve selected the harder route – the road less traveled by my busy brain – I’ve often emerged with a more intimate understanding of my thoughts, or the needs of our community, or just the simple pleasure of a homemade meal over a freezer-burned enchilada.

Over these next few weeks, I invite myself and others to lean into moments of solitude. Read, write, draw, dance, pick pollen or simply sit on the edge of your bed and stare at the dresser.

Mental gremlins, when acknowledged and even nurtured, might give rise to the wild idea or long-forgotten story that must be shared, jettisoning us from a moment of solitude to connect with another person.

Sophia Maggio is a senior at Gonzaga University studying art and psychology research. She is a Wolff Fellow at SpokaneFaVS.

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