A recent study challenged people to sit quietly by themselves, alone with their thoughts.1 The article in the footnotes below gives a great summary of all that happened; but the short of it is that silence and solitude, for most people, is just rather unenjoyable. In fact, “Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid,” Wilson commented.1
I’m sure many of those people were just curious what the shock would be like, considering they had nothing else to do. So maybe it was more curiosity than an attempt to escape the pain of solitude, but it is telling nonetheless. Overall, on a scale of 1 (bad)-9 (good), people scored being alone with their thoughts between 4-4.5.1 So according to the participants in this study, being alone with your thoughts is just…meh.
I love stories of exploration and observation. I think we all love discovery, learning something new, and satisfying our curiosity. So why are we so adverse to exploring our own selves? There’s so much to learn! So much potential! So much healing…
—is that the fear? The cause for hesitation? Will we discover the areas of our lives that need healing? Will we discover areas that require us to reframe our reality?
When I was in college, I went to Egypt for a cross-cultural studies class for three-weeks. I love travel, so it was an adventure for the first week—trying to learn Arabic, sampling new food, and learning about the culture. But then we went for a walk through Garbage City that changed everything. Garbage City, or Manshiyat Nasser, is a slum on the outskirts of Cairo populated primarily by Coptic Christians. Most people there make their living collecting and recycling trash from the city. I still have the haunting memory of a woman setting down her baby on one pile of trash bags so she could sort through another pile of trash. The baby was fine, sleeping probably, but that image of a baby in that environment has never left me. That experience caused me to reframe everything. I had to redraw the lines of various terms that I used. What was suffering? What was poverty? What was wealth? What is “enough”? What is affluence?—What am I doing here?
It’s not easy paying attention, in fact sometimes it hurts. Maybe some of us are afraid that we’ll find a Garbage City within our selves that will cause a lot of questions and cause a major shift in the way we process our world. It’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid of those messy places, but sometimes simply seeing and naming things for what they are is the first and most important step. When I saw Garbage City, I didn’t (I couldn’t) run out and change it, clean it up, and give everyone what they needed—but I had to address what I saw. I had to acknowledge that we live in a broken world, that things are unfair and unjust, that innocent people suffer, that there is hate in the world. Once I acknowledged those things, I could begin working on my response to them in my own life.
When we spend time alone examining ourselves, we don’t have to immediately figure out how to fix the messes we discover, we just need to first acknowledge they are there. Most of us have underlying anxieties or negative scripts that we run about ourselves, and we continue to be crippled by them because we never acknowledge them. During an inner healing exercise that I was doing for a class last year, I realized that I have been carrying with me a fear to step out and make my voice heard. It goes all the way back to 1st grade when I mispronounced a word in class and everyone laughed at me. I genuinely and sincerely thought Oodles of Noodles was actually Noodles and Noodles (I’m over it now, so you can laugh). I confidently gave my answer in front of the class, not realizing that I had it wrong. Even today, I hesitate putting myself out in public (like writing here) because there is part of me that is afraid that in my genuine and sincere intention to do or say something, I might be completely naive and say something obviously wrong. However, as soon as I acknowledged that wound in my life, I was able to begin addressing it—almost without even thinking about it. I now laugh at how silly that scenario was. My classmates weren’t being malicious, I just interpreted and processed that experience in a way that created a wound. I’ve learned to take myself much more lightly.
I think what is underlying our fear of silence and self is the fear of facing our wounds—and our need for healing. We don’t need to be overly dramatic about it though. Some of the wounds that we might need healing from could be as simple as mispronouncing your favorite childhood food in 1st grade; others might be more serious.
If we can just take more time to sit quietly, alone, and ask God to search our anxious hearts we’ll discover things that need healing; and we’ll become better people for having addressed them.
If you want more information about inner healing, there is an excellent book by Rusty Rustenbach called A Guide for Listening and Inner-Healing Prayer: Meeting God in the Broken Places. I highly recommend it!
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc] Da Nang, Vietnam