Yes, we know that technology is everywhere and shaping our generation in new, unimagined ways. Yes, we know we should unplug and be less distracted. But there’s another reason we should temper our use of technology: solitude.
It’s hardly surprising that time spent in solitude has diminished due to the rise of our smartphones and social media platforms. And this decrease in solitude has had serious consequences for us. As it turns out, we need solitude — just as much as we need personal relationships — to live healthy and thriving lives.
It’s common for people to think that solitude only refers to time spent extremely alone, such as a week locked in a remote cabin or a solo trek through a national forest. While these things can certainly offer a substantial dose of solitude, the truth is that most of us don’t have lives that realistically allow for that type of radical isolation on a consistent basis. Besides, even while doing those things, we could be still listening to our iPhones or checking in on Instagram — in which case, we aren’t actually engaging in solitude.
Solitude is not physical isolation from others, but a state of being.
Cal Newport is a Georgetown professor and New York Times best-selling author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. He suggests integrating into our lives certain practices (such as a “digital declutter”) to replace unhealthy technology habits — and he spends an entire chapter on the importance and necessity of solitude.
Newport understands solitude as a “subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds” and distractions (e.g. technology, etc.). This is a much more helpful definition than just being alone because it means that with some intentionality and planning, we can achieve it every day or several times per week — on a crowded subway train, in a coffee shop, or during an evening stroll.
Solitude is important because it allows us time to think, work out problems in our professional and personal lives, reflect on our goals, express gratitude for our gifts and blessings, and hear the quiet and still voice of God. We simply can’t do any of these things if we’re constantly listening to tracks on Spotify, responding to group texts, or skimming Instagram feeds.
In the past, people didn’t have a choice but to endure long periods of solitude. The lack of technology meant they couldn’t listen to a podcast when they took public transit to work, or check their phones when waiting in line at the post office. They were forced to confront their thoughts, fears, dreams, and everything else circling inside their mind.
Today, of course, we can literally spend every waking hour — even when we’re in the bathroom! — engaged and distracted thanks to our digitally connected and technological world.
Newport details how famous thinkers and figures like Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others made a discipline of creating space for solitude. Many made a habit of taking meandering walks through nature that lasted several hours. In fact, Blaise Pascal believed that “all of humanity’s problems stem from a man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” In other words, if individuals like these understood the importance of solitude, then certainly we should as well.
While solitude can certainly help us with intellectual and creative challenges in our work and life, it’s also necessary because it creates the space to both hear our inner selves and the voice of God. But how can we possibly hear God speaking to us in the inner recesses of our hearts if we don’t take consistent time to quiet our minds intentionally and regularly?
God certainly does speak to us through other people, Scripture, books, homilies, and more — but He also speaks to us in our silence. Most of us aren’t called to spend several hours every day in solitude, and we certainly can’t all become reclusive monks. But we are called to regularly create space in our lives for solitude — time away from people, technology, and other distractions.
Newport gives three practical approaches to implementing solitude into our lives: leave your phone at home, take long walks, and write letters to yourself. While I can’t say I have adopted his first one, I have been able to incorporate the other two and have found them to be immensely fruitful in my own life.
Nearly a year ago I moved 3,000 miles across the country to begin graduate school, leaving my friends, family, and familiar routines. As a result, I found myself with much more time for solitude than I had in the past. This has been challenging in some respects, but in others it’s been an extremely illuminating and productive year. I’ve come to learn things about myself, what’s most important to me, and how I can better be the person God created me to be through the time I’ve had to think and reflect — whether that’s during a walk around campus at dusk or from journaling in the corner of the university library.
I’ve also come to learn things about God and His presence in my life that I could never have gleaned through reading a book, speaking to a friend, or listening to a podcast (though, of course, those things have been nourishing in other ways). As Thomas Merton wrote, “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” In ways I could not have anticipated, my time in solitude over the last year has confirmed the truth of Merton’s words.
Solitude remains a critical way to combat the restlessness, malaise, and anxiety that immoderate technology use can create in our lives today. And like most things worth doing, turning off our phones to sit quietly with ourselves isn’t easy, but I’ve discovered that spending time in the presence of God within the depths of solitude is always well worth the effort.