Jan 27 2020

Loneliness and Nature

Do you experience loneliness?  Statistics would indicate that periodically you do.  Just about everyone does.  How do you deal with loneliness?  Some choose harmful paths but most people simply seek companionship.  But where do we find the companionship we’re looking for?  An obvious answer might be in our friends and family.  A less obvious answer would be in nature.

A few days ago a good friend sent me a link to an article found in the most recent issue of The Christian Century.  In this article the author, Tricia Gates Brown, claims that our problem isn’t just loneliness, it’s “species loneliness.”  This phrase she picked up from novelist Richard Powers.  Brown writes, “For Powers, species loneliness denotes the ways human beings have cut ourselves off from the nonhuman species inhabiting our world.  In our desire for dominance and self-gratification we have put ourselves in solitary confinement, and in the worst cases become the tormenter of all things nonhuman.  We have deprived ourselves of love relationships with nonhumans.”  Brown goes on to say that species loneliness is making us sick.  “We were never meant to operate as an autonomous and independent species.  We desperately need the full cooperation of other species to survive, from large mammals that maintain a crucial balance within ecosystems to microbial communities in our own guts.  As a result of our non-cooperation, interspecies disconnection is breaking down the systems humans depend on.  This disconnection is deeper than the interdependence of biological systems; it is also theological.  That’s why, to my ears, the word loneliness gets at the issue with such scalpel-precision.  Loneliness has been defined as being ‘destitute of sympathetic companionship.’  It is a sickness of the heart and soul, the parts of ourselves we cannot see yet know to be our very essence.”

I believe that Brown is on to something here.  Loneliness is a reality for many of us and the root of that loneliness is not always human.  This explains why some people turn to their pets for companionship.  It may sound strange to some but there are people I know who find companionship in certain trees or flowers.  I’m convinced that this is just how God has made us.  In the Creation stories in the Bible animals and plants play a prominent role.  We are meant to interact with the rest of Creation and can find an antidote to loneliness there as well as with other humans.  This enables us to “widen the family circle of love.”  At the end of Brown’s article she says “God as immanent companion encountered in nature—under a stone or in the eyes of a hummingbird or a dog—is wonderfully good news for people sick with loneliness.  Love is abundant and waiting for us, right there in nature.”  Are you willing to expand the boundaries of your love?  If so, you may well find your periods of loneliness lessen to a significant degree.


Aug 24 2011

“The Re-Creating Stillness of Solitude”

Last night I returned to a book I’ve been reading off and on lately, Gardening Eden.  In one of the chapters I read the author, Michael Abbate, writes about creation care as worship.  He says, “The creation should drive us to our knees.  Not to worship it, but to worship the One who made it happen.  His genius, His power, His wisdom.  All of which combined to cause creation’s beauty, creation’s diversity, creation’s order.  But really seeing the creation takes awareness on our part; we have to pay attention.”  Abbate goes on to list a number of steps along creation’s path to worship.  The first of these is something you read about a lot here on this blog—“opening our eyes to see the real beauty that exists in the world around us.”  It is the second step he mentions that I want to focus on today.

The second step Abbate lists is solitude. Here he makes this interesting claim: “Being able to see the beauty in the world around us requires that we open our eyes, but observation is even more powerful if we are alone with our thoughts.”  I have long been familiar with solitude as a spiritual discipline but have not necessarily connected it to seeing Creation.  Abbate makes a convincing case for this.  He says “Solitude can enhance our appreciation of the environment.  Time spent alone can be a powerful way to remove the distractions that commonly prevent us from approaching God in a fully yielding, open way.  Spending time alone in creation allows our minds to reflect on the majesty of creation and the omnipotence of the Creator.  Our minds can be re-created, refreshed, and recharged.  Richard Foster calls this ‘the re-creating stillness of solitude.’”

Later in this section Abbate notes that in today’s world replacing noise with stillness is a challenge.  That is undoubtedly true.  Earlier this week I was reading the most recent issue of The Christian Century.  One of the articles that caught my eye is called “Tech Detox: Unplugged at Church Camp.”  The author, Andrew Scott, writes about how difficult it is for teenagers—and their counselors—to go to Christian camps during the summer and give up their cell phones and ipods.  So many people have become addicted to these.  As noted in the article, “the problem is not the technology itself but the culture of multitasking and instant communication that makes it hard for campers to pay attention to what is happening at camp and to be fully present with one another.”  In this article Scott also quotes camp director Rhonda Parker as saying, “Living life is so much better than watching it.  To be attentive to the world takes time, and that can’t be cultivated by looking at a two-by-three inch screen.”  Another camp director added, “Technology is an addiction, and there is something good about the isolation of a wilderness experience.  Camp is the last place where kids can reclaim an intentional space of connection, and it’s almost a revolutionary idea.”

Both kids and adults can benefit from time alone in Creation without their phones and other devices to distract them.  If it is our goal to worship the Creator we should be disciplined enough to “unplug” and “go it alone” from time to time.  For many this will not be easy but I learned a long time ago that the things in life that really count rarely do come easy.  Another lesson I’ve learned is that great rewards often come through the path of discipline and sacrifice.  And since I know of no greater reward than the opportunity to experience and encounter the Maker of heaven and earth I would think spending time alone with God in nature would be well worth whatever sacrifice that might entail, be that at a summer camp or wherever else you might find solitude in God’s Creation.


(The top image, which symbolizes solitude for me, was taken at Great Smoky Mountains NP.  The bottom two pictures were taken at Disciple campgrounds in Kentucky, Camp  Wakonda-Ho and Camp Kum-Ba-Ya.)