Independence is not loneliness. It is more like solitude.
One of the loneliest feelings I have is “it’s all up to me.” I am not alone. A lot of parents these days think they have to be coaches, teachers, custodians, and cafeteria workers. I really don’t know how they do it and am so glad that I don’t have children at home right now. A lot of nurses and doctors experience a kind of moral injury, a “betrayal”, according to theologian Rita Nakeshemi Brock. Why were they stranded by the very systems that they work for without masks and protective garments for so long? Surely African Americans have a right to exquisite loneliness. Not being safe to run while Black or bird while Black or go out after dark while Black! A writing teacher once told me to only use five exclamation points per month. The exquisite loneliness of racism has to startle us. It needs exclamation points. On top of all the systemic sh–, imagine the loneliness of being left out and behind, at the same time somebody could just decide to choke you.
Along comes Independence Day this year and most of us are deep in the positive version of loneliness. Its name is solitude. Yes! Things are really getting better. We are in the streets with each other, even if sacrificially. Solitude is when we welcome the realities that we have been stranded or betrayed or oppressed or stuck with the kids we love, all day long for months. We get over denial. We say we are in deep trouble, as a nation and as a person and as a people. We are homesick at home. We ALSO are not alone anymore.
My loneliness shifted the day I saw the Sunday New York Times June 14 headline, “An Awakening in America is Prying at Racism’s Grip.” I realized I wasn’t alone in a demonstration where the police are so “independent” that they don’t wear facemasks while doing their very public job. I realized I was in a hopeful place with hopeful people, who were doing something together. Most in my demonstration were white and young. I had that solitude that you know when socially distancing. It’s called solidarity.
It got me through my denial and let me come out on something like the other side.
In my loneliness and perhaps yours, I often felt that I was not an essential worker. I had become way too independent.
I have been a pastor who doesn’t preach, a counselor who doesn’t counsel, a funeral officiant who doesn’t bury, a marriage maker who doesn’t stand behind any altars. Not to mention all the baptisms that didn’t happen because I can’t touch babies without ugly blue gloves.
There are a lot of gifts in being non-essential. One is a little time off. Another is a little time off. A third is the same. Becoming an autonomous person! Independence is not all bad. We need to know that we can survive solitary. But internal resources all by themselves are loneliness making.
I have often counseled parents not to send their kids off to major in business school when they go to college. Have them choose something useless like art history or English or another “liberal” “art”. College years may be the last time they will have to be non-essential.
Art is never essential. Instead it lives in the place beyond the essential. Alongside the essential. Art is what you do because you want to do it. It is rarely necessary like bread, but instead useless like roses.
Beyoncé‘s beautiful commencement address says she had to build her own table. She even had to gather the wood for it. As she saw it everything indeed was up to her. But then, after demonstrating her independence, look at what her solitude has done for so many.
She is a pollinator. She makes blooms. She is a lifeboat, as my friend Matt Stinchcomb says about spiritual entrepreneurs who build their own tables.
We all really miss a live audience right now. We miss being part of one. But again, we were never not a part. Essential workers have been way too much a part. Neither loneliness or solitude is their problem. Nonessentials—artists, pollinators, lifeboats, clergy, spiritual entrepreneurs—have been way too underused.
We are learning how to be just close enough—not too close and not too far. Happy Solitude Day.