Even for a five-year-old, my son has big emotions. He and my wife were chatting in our hallway recently. She stepped into another room—just a few feet away—to change our two-year-old daughter’s clothes. “But I don’t want to be alone!” our son yelled, as if an unbridgeable chasm had opened between him and the girls he could still nearly touch.
His exaggerated protest had little to do with loneliness. He was really saying, “I don’t want to be a non-player in this scene. I don’t want to be insignificant.”
We are all my son.
Our much-discussed crisis of distraction today is, put differently, a crisis of solitude. We don’t want to disconnect, even though indulging screen time instead of stillness is taking a toll on our mental health. We know that, in contrast, measured idleness is good for us and can actually catalyze creative breakthrough. And entire shelves of Christian books adjure us about how God transforms our lives through solitude.
Yet we (read: “I”) summon all manner of reasonable excuses for shirking solitude. Career demands. Family needs. Ministry opportunities. Beneath all these, however, lies a deeper problem: fear of insignificance. Solitude forces us into positions of uselessness, at least temporarily. Sequestered in the wilderness or in a room away from my smartphone, I feel unimportant, unable to do anything for anyone. I am unseen.
There are echoes of Richard Foster here, but thinkers from Pascal to Nietzsche have also noted the pervasive effects of the fear-distraction nexus. Consider, for example, its role in perpetuating America’s urban-rural divide. The buzz of elite cities has a way of charging study, work, and even play with an air of importance, while rural life can leave us with a (false) inferiority complex—my remote town is forgotten, therefore I am forgotten.
This month’s cover story is an ode to solitude and to God’s powerful presence in isolation. We featured such an essay because the crisis of solitude is, in fact, one of the most pressing challenges for Christians today. Henri Nouwen said that “without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.” If he’s right, then I suspect many of us need to ask ourselves some hard questions.
I am incredibly grateful that you’ve carved out time to read Christianity Today, and I am always inspired by our readers’ commitment to think deeply about how the good, beautiful, and true gospel is lived out in these complex times. But if what you need even more is to set our magazine aside for a while and disappear into insignificance, I’d be equally inspired. We’ll still be here when you come back.
Andy Olsen is Managing Editor of Christianity Today magazine. Follow him on Twitter @AndyROlsen.