We often fear solitude and loneliness—but sometimes it can turn out to be a blessing.
In this week's Torah portion, Tazria, we learn about the diagnosis and treatment for a disease that afflicts the Israelites through their skin, surfaces and walls: tzara'at—often (mis)translated as “leprosy.” The Rabbis tend to associate the physical symptoms with an inner, spiritual affliction. They note that the “patient” with this condition is required to undergo a period of quarantine outside the camp—alone— until all signs of the disease subside. Many see this temporary banishment as a form of punishment—yet we might choose to view it differently. Rabbi Yael Shy likens the quarantine to a meditation retreat. She notes: It is an enforced separation from society so that the person who has erected barriers within oneself is forced to shine the light of awareness on those barriers and the ways they are making her sick. Like meditation retreats, it may not be pleasant or easy, but the process leads to a necessary opening and healing, critical for the person's continued survival and growth.
Many of us are afraid of being alone. We fear the silence, which may hint at our mortality. Even when we find ourselves in solitude, we therefore tend to fill our ears and minds with distractions. We stare at our smart phones, listen to our music and podcasts, watch movies and television shows—all avoid being really present with our deepest, truest selves, even when no other people are around. Perhaps we might see the Israelite stricken with tzara’at as emblematic of most of us, over-stimulated by material things and therefore in need of a sort of spiritual quarantine “cure.”
Father Henri Nouwen spoke eloquently of this state of affairs—and the rewards for ultimately embracing our solitude and silences. I’ll end with a favorite passage from an anthology of his wisdom, The Only Necessary Thing:
Solitude is a discipline that helps us go beyond the entertainment quality of our lives. At first silence might only frighten us. In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. These voices are often noisy and boisterous. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them. . . But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of light. These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love. They might, at first, seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent, and they will grow stronger if we keep listening.