Paralysis Through Choice
Never has there been a culture in the world where the typical person has more choices. A friend of mine from another country complained to me one day, that he had gone to a sandwich shop and in ordering his sandwich had to make about 15 decisions related to type of bread, pickles or no, type of cheese, and so on. When my brother-in-law returned from Bolivia after four years, he recounted that his wife sent him to the grocery store to get some cereal. In Bolivia, there was puffed rice and puffed wheat. When he reached the cereal aisle of the grocery store, which reached the entire length of the store, he froze, overwhelmed and ultimately, unable to decide, he sheepishly returned home with no cereal.
But I propose that a diminished reality may either magnify our loss or intensify our joy. Imagine a single person, who hopes to marry. In their singleness, they date often—going skiing, dining out, and many more experiences. But in the midst of this multiplicity of experiences they meet “the one.” And the solidarity of the one overwhelms the experience of the many. And life takes on a glow, a purposefulness, an expansiveness around the one.
We see in Scripture how our Lord led people through solitary experiences that opened into a fresh and expansive life. There is Abraham, settled and safe, invited to a land he had never seen with the promise that his descendants would be more than the sands of the sea. Moses had made sense of his life away from Egypt and in the desert. The solitary invitation to lead the children of Israel expanded his world beyond his imagination. Noah was to focus on an ark when no one saw a cloud on the horizon. In the solitariness of an unfamiliar land, an unfamiliar family, an unfamiliar jail cell, Joseph saved the future nation of Israel. Paul’s plan to go east into Asia was thwarted, first by a vision and then an impression, and so with options reduced he boarded a ship for Macedonia. And Jesus tells those around Him he was singularly focused on the will of His Father.
Growth Through Focus
Both in sports and music, the joy of the multitudes is preceded by solitariness of practice with no audience. Dorothy Hamill, one-time Olympic figure skating medalist, spoke of regularly not accepting invitations to go out for pizza with her friends because of dietary rules and the knowledge that in the wee hours of the morning she would need to be at the public practice rink before it opened to others.
We love those stories don’t we? As long as we aren’t the ones living them.
But the knowledge that the expansiveness of our skills and impact is the result of, not the reward of, the solitariness of our discipline, is humbling. In the movie Julia, Jason Robards played the mystery writer Dashiell Hammett who tells a young writer experiencing some success, “It’s just fame; it has nothing to do with writing.”
Hidden Gifts in Solitude
In the two years prior to this pandemic, I did a great deal of traveling, which occasionally had a fracturing impact on my ability to concentrate. This year of staying home has helped me, redefining my present and, in fact, causing me to be present, not to my schedule, but to myself and others. And in the midst of it were five grandchildren from ages 7 to 3, creating a cacophony of sound unique to children at work and play.
Can I find, can I imagine, the expansiveness partially hidden behind the solitary? Often in the solitary I find part of my identity that was hidden in the rush.