Friday, January 14, 2011

The importance and value of solitude

My wife and I are expecting a new baby this summer.  Depending on the day, I am either terribly excited or scared stupid.  Our two year-old daughter feels the same way.  A few weeks ago we were talking at dinner about what it would be like to have another child and what things might change and sensing that she was losing her position as the center of the family she bluntly stated "I don't like the baby."  We tried unsuccessfully to convince her that having a brother or sister wouldn't mean losing her place in the family and didn't think much more of it.  A few nights later I came home from work after she had gone to bed and thought I would peek in on her to make sure she was sleeping okay.  When I opened the door I could see she was laying in her bed wide awake and realized that she probably had been there like that for close to an hour.  It sometimes helps her fall asleep if she has someone laying next to her, so I layed down but didn't say anything.  After a few seconds she looked at me and said "I think I can share Mom with the baby."  I was pretty blown away.  First, because it seemed like a pretty sophisticated thought for a two year-old and, second, because it had been days since we had talked to her about the baby.  

It is hard to say what would lead a child to a thought like the one our daughter expressed, but I wonder if it was partly due to her lying in a quiet, dark room, all alone with her thoughts for what must have seemd to her like an eternity (anyone with a small child learns that, to them, five minutes is a long time).  I have wondered since then if she doesn't also lay in bed in the mornings and think because she seems to have insightful things to say immediately after getting up in the mornings.  

As I was thinking about all of this, I came across a lecture on the virtue of solititude given to the freshman class at West Point by William Deresiewicz.  In the talk he argues that one of the distinguishing qualities of good leaders is that they find time to be alone.  That may mean quite time for introspection, focused and sustained work on a single project (e.g. rebuilding an engine or repairing a toilet), or deep and engaged reading of a text.  The point he makes is that these sorts of activities remove us from the frenetic and distracting world we generally find ourselves in and give us an opportunity to be alone with our thoughts.  It is during those times, he claims, that we can receive inspiration, be truly creative, and develop the original and insightful vision characteristic of great leaders.

This is an interesting idea and stands in pretty stark contrast to the emphasis we have come to place on connectedness, networking, and multi-tasking.  I don't know that Deresiewicz would argue for complete isolation or cutting oneself off from all external influences.  Rather, it is periods of solitude, reflection, and just being alone that give us a chance to make sense of our lives and find our own direction. 

I work on a college campus where it almost seems to be a necessity to run from one meeting to the next, always have a new project on the horizon, and fill ones day with "productive" activities.  I see this in faculty members who move from preparing a lecture, to delivering it, to office hours, to a committee meeting, to work on a paper.  I see it in students who go to class, participate in clubs, serve in the community, and study in the evenings.  And I see it in myself (yesterday I got to my office a little before 8:00 and didn't stop meeting with students, updating records, and writing proposals until after 6:00.  So, I wonder how much this relentless "productive" pace is hurting our learning.  How often do we carve out time and space for the solitude that Deresiewicz speaks of?  How much is enough?  And, should institutions (be it schools, universities, businesses, or families) be more intentional and proactive in expecting and allowing their members to stop being busy and start thinking and sense-making.

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