A Case for Child Solitude

shutterstock_145763291There are times when a bear has to be alone with himself,
to think his own thoughts and sing his own songs.
~ G. Hayes, Bear By Himself

“And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely place” (Luke 4:42). Most of the time, the Gospels depict Jesus going off to lonely places to pray. Not this time. He’d been healing and preaching, and he went off to a lonely place just to be alone. To get the heck away from people. How un-Christlike, right?

It’s a radical notion going off by ourselves, especially for Christians. It just doesn’t seem right — no people, no distractions, no agendas, no to-do lists. Just a lonely place. It sounds so selfish and unproductive.

Plus, in this age of tweeting and texting and selfies and constant cyber-connection, is it even healthy to be alone? Isn’t it somehow disordered?

Well, yes, it is. To seek isolation and aloneness is to be out of order today. Ah, but what a glorious disorder it is!

So, how can we teach this to our kids? Their whole world is wholly given over to that connectedness we throwbacks instinctively rebel against. Is it possible to instill in children an appreciation — even a tolerance — for being alone?

Perhaps. Among other things, we grown-ups have to be good role models. And toward that end, we would do well to return to some of the stories we read in our youth that first introduced us to the value of being alone. Re-read them first, maybe a couple times. Then read them to kids — any kids. Preferably your own.

The Story of Ferdinand

This is aloneness for kids par excellence. Ferdinand only wants to be left alone to sit in the shade of his cork tree in the pasture and smell the flowers.

He’s not antisocial. He’s not neurotic or maladjusted. He just relishes quiet and solitude and flowery scents.

Like solitude-lovers today, Ferdinand’s odd behavior attracted attention, including, naturally, his concerned mother. But Ferdinand exhibited a contentment and integrated wholeness that was convincing. “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

To be alone is not necessarily to be lonesome — a key point. And when they compelled Ferdinand to enter the ring, his contentment and integrated wholeness enabled him to refuse the fight with ease — another key point. The interior calm that accompanies familiarity with aloneness often orients one to peacemaking instead of aggression. Ferdinand, a solitary and a peacemaker, achieved inner peace. “And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”

The Giving Tree

This is aloneness of a different sort: imposed, not chosen; endured, not delighted in.

Still, the tree — abandoned, forlorn, hoping against hope, and loving without limit — can draw on hidden reserves, much like Ferdinand did. This time, however, the foe to be faced is not an outsider — a matador, for example — but rather the ego within.

The tree’s boy takes and takes, heedless of the tree’s pain and alienation. The tree does her best to keep faith and believe in the boy’s fundamental love for her, although it gets harder and harder as the tale progresses. “And the tree was happy…,” the narrator declares toward the end, “but not really.”

Here’s an aloneness that we all have to face sooner or later — an aloneness of rejection and even betrayal. Can we endure it?

The tree did so, and enjoyed a reconciliation of sorts in the end. Regardless, the happiness she experiences when reunited with her boy is a happiness she really possessed all along — or, rather, not a happiness so much as a joy. For her strength, like her love, was not dependent on feelings. Love is an act of the naked will, and we’re capable of love whether in community or in isolation.

The Porcupine Whose Name Didn’t Matter

This is a cheat, I suppose, because really it’s a short story rather than a book. (Note: The entire collection in which it is found, The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell, is definitely worth your time, especially the first story, “Barrington Bunny.”)

“The Porcupine” tells the tale of Joggi, a solitary curmudgeon and misanthrope (if that term can be applied to a porcupine) who refuses even the minimal communal attachment represented by the exchange of names.

It doesn’t matter what my name is! Can’t you see? What difference does it make? I won’t tell you what my name is, because it doesn’t matter!

Joggi’s isolation is chosen, not imposed — unlike the tree’s. But Joggi’s voluntary aloneness is fraught with misery, not joy — unlike Ferdinand’s. Joggi’s separation from his fellow creatures is not really solitude, but rather a lonely kind of exile.

Still, when fate (read: providence) brings Joggi in contact with Gamiel, a mortally wounded, blinded racoon, an ember of charity glows red within. It’s as if the isolation that Joggi had cultivated for so long as a protection against the world had morphed at some point into a solitude that made possible sacrificial action and love — and the ability to receive love as well.

They made a home for one another, Joggi and Gamiel. Not a regular home exactly; not a place. More like a shelter from the excessive pain that each of them had known…. Gamiel didn’t mind when Joggi was silent for hours at a time. He could sense the beat. Thumping, ongoing, steady. There. It was enough.

It’s as if two crippled hermits found each other and somehow managed to piece together a communal life together while retaining their separateness — almost like a couple Carthusians in the wilderness: together, yet alone; in community, yet isolated.

In the end, of course, Joggi tells Gamiel his name, but only after the latter’s death. It’s a moment of redemption that was cultivated, over time, in silence and sacrifice, solitude and solicitude. It’s a moment of redemption for the reader as well.

Aloneness, I’m suggesting, by its very nature, is oriented to peace and love. That being the case, maybe you’re like me in thinking a mite more aloneness would do some good. And my kids, too. And the world.

image: Shutterstock

Richard Becker


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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  • JMC

    These are stories I’ve never heard…except for the one about Ferdinand, which was a cartoon I saw frequently on TV when I was a kid. But Joggi describes perfectly the relationship I have with my best friend. We’re both loners and always have been; neither of us has ever been married, because we preferred staying home with our own activities over going “out and about.” We’ve been sharing a home now for over twenty years. The first two or three years were naturally full of conversation in the getting-to-know-you phase, but since then we are most often silent, each doing her own thing, but just knowing the other is there. It’s a very satisfying, companionable way of life for two people who just aren’t “people” persons.

  • A monk

    Everyone needs some time alone with God and some time alone to relax. Many in today’s culture could benefit from more time in private prayer, such as in lectio divina, and the result from it over time would usually be more peace. Children could also probably benefit from more time detached from electronics. Each person, however, has his own optimum ratio of on-time and down-time, of time with others and time to himself, of time for prayer and time for something else. Some temperaments

    Each temperament has its own strengths and weaknesses, and so we should not glorify one temperament’s approach to life over another. What is good for a phlegmatic may not be the best for a choleric; what is good for the sanguine may not be the best for the melancholic, and we all need each person to be who he is before God. This article seems as if it may be a bit biased towards the phlegmatic’s prospective on life, for a chosen solitude is not always ordered towards peace and love. Sometimes a chosen solitude can be a closing in on oneself or a type of avoidance of issues that one would prefer not to confront. Also an imposed solitude may need to be mitigated or overcome in some way in order to be properly carried. So, the treatment of the question requires some nuance, and how to teach each child to obtain his optimum ratio of quiet may require more pondering still.

    This choleric, extroverted monk wishes the best to what seems to be a phlegmatic, introverted father of seven. Given that we may well be polar opposites in opposite circumstances, I thought my prospective may be a balance to yours.

  • chaco

    I hear ya Bro. I’ve been blessed to be a Farmer’s son. Many Divine moments have been experienced in the solitude of the Tractor cab ie. I recall being brought to tears while hearing the Beatles song “Let it Be” on the radio. John Denver’s song “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” is about the only song that makes me overcome my shyness and gather the courage to go out on the dance floor. Just ponder for a moment how simple the solution to the world’s problems really is; In Mt. 22: 37-40 Jesus said that all understanding comes from just 2 laws; 1) Love God 2) Love neighbor . I Think all would agree that 2 flows out of 1. If solitude is a tool to meet our Maker, then this personal certitude will necessarily result in people realizing that all are children of this Maker & deserve being reverenced as a child of God. Oh ! Just imagine the possibilities !