A number of people have asked me if I was lonely while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. This question usually comes directly after they find out I hiked the trail solo. The “lonely” question is often followed by a comment about how they don’t think they could do something like that alone.
I’m a strong extrovert, as in the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory I was on the extreme end of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. As I have gotten older and re-taken the assessment I have swung a little closer towards the middle but still . . . Extrovert! Thru hiking the PCT did mean I would be by myself a majority of the time so I, too, had my concerns about getting lonely!
I am also the queen of filling my schedule with activity, people, work, and more. I sometimes don’t recognize my limits and exhaustion until it is too late. In college it took getting both mono and pneumonia at the same time during my sophomore year to slow me down. Thru hiking the PCT meant I only had one thing on my schedule to do . . . One!
And to top it off, besides the extroverted-ness and pushing the schedule limits, I grew up in the U.S., in a culture where I was taught to compete, win, be the best, climb the ladder, succeed–maybe some of you learned these same things? When I listen to the world around me, I find myself measuring my worth by my work, involvement, and achievements and finding my identity in “doing.” Quitting my job and leaving behind my involvement in things meant I was eliminating much of the identity trap into which I so often fall.
I was definitely curious about how this was going to go on the trail. One of my biggest concerns was wondering what it was going to be like to be alone in my head . . . All. Day. Long. No noise to tune out my voice, no people to verbally process with, no Netflix to binge watch and distract me, and no busy schedule to make me feel productive and useful.
It was just me–sweaty, smelly, unemployed, hiker trash (hiker trash is a term of endearment on the trail).
And, “just me,” as I was reminded on the trail, is enough.
It was in the solitude of the trail that I slowly made my way back to the center of my soul. To a place where being is more important than doing, where listening is not something I avoid, where my drive and achievements are not needed. The solitude of the trail helped bring me to a quiet place where I had the space to think, process, ask questions, listen for answers, make decisions, and find clarity. I noticed the boredom in my day resulting in creativity and open dialogue, with both myself and God. In this quiet center I found my emotions were free to be purely felt in the moment instead of pushed aside, jaded by cynicism, or controlled to please the people around me.
Most importantly, in this quiet center I was reminded of where my worth lies. I believe I am not only created by but I am loved deeply by God. This is not a love that operates within a set of rules but a love that has no rules or boundaries or restrictions. This love requires nothing of me. My worth and identity lie in the simple, yet profound, truth of this love.
In a world of constant activity, people pleasing and striving, I am pulled away from this truth of my worth and identity. I learn to wear the many labels that are put on me and live out of my false self–an identity that comes from forgetting who I am at my core. I feel I must earn love instead of resting in the truth of God’s love. I seek to gain approval instead of remembering the gift of freedom God offers me. Over the course of my life, I have become increasingly aware of how my life looks and feels when I am living this way–out of my false self –and how it affects my spirituality, my self-confidence, and living at peace. As I have learned to be aware of these pieces of who I am, I have sought to find healthier rhythms of operating.
It was in the solitude of the trail that I was reminded of these truths. And, I was reminded that having a rhythm of solitude in my life is essential to not only living out of my true self, but it is essential to how I care for others, interact with my community, and seek to be an agent of change in the world. In his book, Show Me The Way, Henri Nouwen writes,
In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others, and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received. In solitude we discover that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.
This, friends, speaks to the utmost importance of solitude as we live in a world that needs the help, love, healing words, freedom, and gift of life that God offers to others through you and me.
I was recently listening to a podcast by Rob Bell called “Letting the Land Lie Fallow”. Bell talks about the rhythm of rest that is built into creation. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there is a law called “Shmita.” This is a six and one rhythm of working the soil for six years and then allowing the land to lie fallow during the seventh year, similar to the creation story of God resting on the seventh day. This allowed not only the soil to be replenished but also for people to rest, as well. This is one of the things that connected to me as I listened:
There are rhythms built into creation. Rhythms built into the soil. There is a rhythm that your body wants, and your heart and your soul and your mind want to live by. And if you don’t honor those rhythms things start to unravel . . . when we don’t give our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our brains, when we don’t give them the rest they need to be restored and refreshed then they can’t give us what they need to give us and things begin to breakdown.
When I started the PCT, I was coming off an almost two year stretch without good rhythms of rest. Things were beginning to unravel and breakdown. Compare that with the stark contrast of my experience of solitude on the PCT and the health and vitality that came from prioritizing rest, Sabbath, and a quiet center.
Have you seen the movie, “Hook,” with Robin Williams? I promise this is going somewhere . . . stay with me. Williams plays a grown up Peter Pan who has come back to Neverland to find his children. He’s been away for awhile and isn’t quite sure of the whole scene. The “Lost Boys” aren’t sure of this grown up Peter Pan either. There is a point in the movie, after Peter has been back in Neverland for a while, where one of the “Lost Boys” takes Peter’s face in his hands and starts manipulating the skin–stretching it and looking deeply–until he finally finds Peter Pan in a forced smile. “Oh, there you are, Peter!” he says. If you haven’t seen it here’s a short clip of the scene (watch out . . . tear jerker).
I had a moment similar to this on the trail. Not with a kid stretching the skin on my face (weird!) but a moment when I said (yes, I actually said it aloud), “Oh, there you are, Tami!” A moment when the solitude had done its work, when I saw a glimpse of my true self again, when I decided to listen to the voice telling me I am deeply loved and that my worth is not the same as my usefulness.
So, was I lonely on the trail? Sure, sometimes. And, there were still distractions, still the tendency to compete, and still people and activity to fill my time. But the solitude was not lonely, nor did I miss the chaos of a busy schedule. I embraced the opportunity and discovered that solitude is not the same as being alone . . . solitude means being fully present with myself. One of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, Parker Palmer speaks to this in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”
I don’t know about you but it is tough to incorporate a rhythm of solitude into my life–to be fully present with myself. I had quite a bit of space to slowly ease back into life at home when I came off the trail. Now that I’m working more, I’m noticing my tendency, before cutting anything else out, to eliminate my solitude, or quiet space, on days that are busier.
Obviously, we have to work. There are bills to pay, people to care for, and daily life to live. Things will be busy sometimes. But if we don’t have a quiet center and take time to step back, if we ignore the craving of our body, soul, heart, and mind for rest, then we run the risk of unravel. We run the risk of listening to voices telling us we are worth only our usefulness rather than hearing the One who created us telling us we are deeply loved. We run the risk of living a life that is not our own.
What does it look like for you to incorporate a rhythm of Sabbath, solitude, and rest into your life? How do you get back to your quiet center? Are there regular practices you engage in that keep this in the forefront? For me a few of these practices are:
- Saying no–to activity, involvement, and people–as hard as that is sometimes. As my friend, Jeff, would say, “Say yes with caution and no with confidence.”
- Pursuing things that align with my vocation and calling instead of every opportunity that comes my way.
- Turning my phone and computer off at certain points throughout my day and week.
- Having specific disciplines I practice for certain periods of time.
And, on some level, we just have to choose to make space for rhythms into our life. As simple (or hard) as that sounds, intentional choice is the first step to a quiet center.
May you discover the gifts that come from incorporating a rhythm of rest and solitude into your life–a clear mind to listen, a heart to love others well, an openness to the truth of God’s love and care for you, a deep knowing of where your worth lies–may you discover these gifts and the freedom to live out of these truths.
A Little Extra:
As I was writing this post I kept thinking of books that have shaped my awareness and practice of solitude, and also helped me understand my inner life, the nature of my true self/false self, and how to move then from a quiet center to a place of outward expression and service. I wanted to share a few with you for future reading:
Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen: This is a tiny little book that I used to have my student staff read at the beginning of an academic year. It’s a gem!
Show Me the Way by Henri Nouwen: This is a book of daily readings that I have used during the Lent season the past few years. Simple, profound reminders.
Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer: By one of my favorite authors, and fellow Quaker, I first read this book in college and have read it almost annually since.
A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer: Again, PJP, coming through with an incredible read about living an undivided life.
Sabbath by Wayne Muller: I used this book in an elective I taught at the university where I worked. I love that Muller writes about the theology of Sabbath but also includes simple, tangible ideas for practicing Sabbath rest.
Just a few of my favorites . . . Enjoy!