About a year ago, I moved halfway across the country to follow God's direction for my life. I love to move, and I love new places, so I was very excited! But when I got there a sudden realization hit me: I was all alone.
My parents and my sisters are all back home in Virginia. My friends, all either back home or moved somewhere else. Mentors who had poured faithfully into my growth as a young man, not a single one came with me.
The first couple months living alone in a new city were brutal. I was lonely, and I had never lived by myself before. I didn't know many people yet, I didn't know the city. Anyone who has moved far away knows what that is like. I love to be around people, and I know many of you do too. I've always found alone time difficult, I prefer to be active and around people, so this sudden alone time was like running into a brick wall. And yet, as I reflect on what is nearly a year here, I keep thinking and saying the same thing:
I have grown more in the last year, than I ever have in my life.
I have learned more about myself, and about God than I ever have. I am a more complete and competent person and a better man, all because of the one thing I once feared most in my life.
Isolation can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much of it you have. Too much isolation separates you from much needed human contact and interaction. But too much community can burn you out and exhaust you. There is a good isolation and a bad isolation, or really a healthy isolation and an unhealthy isolation. Community and Isolation are not at odds with each other, and it is not one or the other. They both serve you greatly when you are able to balance them both together.
Unhealthy Isolation: Spending most of your time alone at the expense of time in community.
Healthy Isolation: Being intentional to carve out alone time, away from community, in order to process thoughts and emotions.
We all tend to gravitate towards one end of this spectrum. Extroverts like me tend to be afraid of isolation. Introverts value isolation, but many spend too much time there. You may have found yourself feeling alone right now, and I want to share with you something I have learned.
Intentional isolation brings much needed mindfulness, rest and intimacy with God into our lives.
Isolation Breeds Mindfulness
Many of us are so busy and around so many people that we are often unaware of our own emotions and feelings. We constantly fill our minds and hearts with interactions, social media, shows, time with friends, etc. It's like the relational equivalent to speed reading. We go so fast, and take in so much that we are unable to process all of it. What was the point of reading so much so fast if you didn't take any of it in? We hit the buffet of business and we stuff our faces so quickly that there is no way we can chew and digest it all.
This is something I was afraid of for a long time. Complex emotions and feelings were uncomfortable for me, so I would just keep running fast and hope that they wouldn't catch up with me. It would be clear to anyone else that something was wrong, but I had no idea what was making me upset or angry. I have learned through isolation how to be mindful.
mind.ful : "Conscious or aware of something"
Let me tell you something; not being aware of your emotions makes your relationships suffer badly. The other person knows something is wrong but you don't. It's impossible to communicate what you feel if you don't know what you feel. It's difficult to understand what you feel if you don't slow down and take a look at it.
This is where a healthy isolation is so crucial. Healthy isolation breeds mindfulness. When we slow things down and separate ourselves from the action for a while, we are naturally able to process thoughts and emotions; isolation helps us digest what we have eaten in community and understand what we are feeling. Embracing isolation helped me to start having time by myself with no music, no tv, nothing. Just stopping and thinking and being mindful of what is there. Sometimes I write down simple statements like "I feel ___" or "I am ___". Set aside time to process and take inventory of what's on your mind and in your heart. Think of your thoughts and emotions like a book. You can't tell someone else what's in a book if you haven't read it. If you stop and read what's on your mind, you are then able to relay it to others and deal with the information accordingly. If anyone knows what's written on those pages, it should be you.
Isolation Breeds Rest
Those of you who are naturally introverted know this well. Being by yourself can be one of the most peaceful things in the world. Shut the door, turn off the phone, tell them you can't make it this time, and just be. I didn't know how to do that for a long time, and I always felt exhausted. Now on my day off, I cherish time to unplug and turn off the engine. Being with friends is very relaxing for me, and when I am tired my first instinct is to get around people. But we forget that time in community takes energy too, energy to listen to others, energy to smile and laugh and engage. Community fills you up and refreshes you, but it still requires you to have the engine running. Isolation allows you to truly turn the engine off. Sometimes the best way to replenish energy is simply to stop expending it.
My to-do list is always full, and if I had it my way I would keep going and going forever, energizer bunny style. I feel most valuable and content when I am productive. I have had to realize that to be productive and keep moving forward means that I need to come to a complete stop sometimes. You can't drive across the country in one sitting without stopping to fill the car up with gas.
Isolation is the gas station. Pull off the road. Fill up the tank completely. Then hit the road again.
I haven't stopped seeing my friends. I would still say I spend more time with people than alone. I like it that way. But I have learned when I need to be isolated, how to say no, and how valuable it is to slow down and turn the car off.
Isolation Breeds Intimacy With God
This is by far the most important thing I've learned from living by myself and spending more time alone. Time away from other people is the best time we can spend with God. I would even say that it takes being away from other people to truly experience intimacy with God.
When you are dating someone you don't only see them in groups. Of course not. For you to develop a close relationship with them, it's important to spend a lot of time together one on one. And yet in our relationship with God, we often only go on group dates. Imagine only dating someone in group settings. How frustrating would that be? There's things you want to talk about, questions you want to ask that you can't in front of others, affection you want to show that is too personal to be seen. But very often, this is what our relationship with God looks like.
Church. Bible studies. Small groups.
Many of us are getting most of our time with God in community, and missing out on the most special and personal experience we can have with him in isolation.
Mark 1:35: "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."
Jesus is a perfect example of seeking God in isolation, and He shows us the most optimal time to talk to God and become close with Him.
Early in the morning. By yourself.
God wants to pursue you and wants you to pursue Him. He wants you to tell Him how you feel and what's on your mind. He wants to show you affection and encourage you. He wants time with you, just the two of you. This is why I love that God relates to us as a Father. Growing up, there were few things I cherished more than alone time with my Dad. Going for a drive and talking about women and sports. Listening to loud music. Even sitting around waiting for the girls while they shopped. All the wonderful time we spent together as a family could never replicate the bond I have with my Dad from time spent together, just the two us.
God wants that time with us. To share, express your hopes, fears, frustrations, all of it. And you need it. Isolation breeds intimacy. We were created for intimate relationships with God. That's what He created us for, to know Him and to be known by Him.
This season of isolation did something amazing for me. It forced me to spend time with God that I had neglected for a long time. Maybe that's what He wanted; to put me by myself so that He and I could spend more time together, just the two of us. I'm so glad He did. I know His heart better than ever. I can hear His voice, and see where He is leading me. I never ever feel alone, even if I am alone, I know that God is with me. Time in isolation has brought me closer to God than I have ever been.
We shouldn't only spend time in isolation; we weren't created to only be alone. But embracing intentional and balanced isolation brings much needed mindfulness, rest, and intimacy with God into our lives.