After Christmas, I went up the mountain for some cross-country skiing. By myself. Between my wife’s death and Covid-19 isolation, I’ve spent a lot of time alone this last year.
There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone. Lonely is a state of mind; alone is a fact.
In the silence broken only by my skis swooshing along the tracks, I amused myself thinking of the benefits of being alone.
· No negotiating about where to go, or when and where to meet.
· No competition about who’s going to drive.
· No disagreements over what to pack for lunch. No juggling menus to suit someone else’s dietary needs.
· No hurrying to keep up with someone younger and fitter.
· No reason not to stop, to catch a breath, to take in the view.. Or, in other settings, to pull off the road to read a historical marker, or to visit some natural wonder you’ve always rushed past before.
· No need to phone anyone just because you’re running a little late.
· And in a broader sense, no interruptions in the middle of a thought, a moment of meditation, or of prayer.
You may have noticed, though, that I listed all those points as negatives. Because those benefits don’t outweigh the losses.
We humans are social animals. Evolutionary biologists now argue that the key factor in evolution is not survival of the most powerful or most ruthless, but the most cooperative.
That applies at all levels of life. From forests where trees nurture other trees. To single-celled creatures that clump together to share specialized functions. To elephants that form a living fortress to protect their young from predators.
And we humans are the most collaborative of creatures. Even if, for much of our history, we’ve done it only so that we could make war more efficiently. Against other humans. Or against nature.
Consider -- whales talk. Their whistles and grunts can travel great distances in the ocean. But there is no way that an Atlantic whale can help a Pacific whale find food, or extricate itself from a net.
But a doctor in Wuhan can assist a doctor in Wichita treat a Covid-19 patient. A faceless voice in India can help me fix a computer glitch in Canada. A rocket technician in Moscow can send an American astronaut to the international space station.
We are who we are because we work together. Physically. Mentally. And emotionally.
Whether we’re acting together on life’s stage, or performing solo before an audience, we need each other. Would Mark Antony have delivered his famous “Friends! Romans! Countrymen!” speech to an empty plaza if everyone had stayed home to watch Netflix?
I write alone, true. I have to. But I write because, like Antony, I have an audience to write for.
Even the joy of skiing, for me, is not the skiing itself. Part of the pleasure is conversation in someone’s car, there and back. Sitting in the lodge, eating a sandwich together. Talking about which trails we took. And did we see the rabbits, the coyote track, the sunlight turning a field of snow crystals into dancing diamonds…?
Being alone offers some benefits, certainly. But they’re no substitute for being together.
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I had a slightly extended email conversation with Bob Rollwagen. Last week’s column was about, you may recall, the year end as an invisible barrier we have to crash through, to land in 2021.
Bob recalled similar feelings in 1999, as we waited for the millennium to tick over to 2000: “I recall the anticipation of really crashing into 2000. It was a bit anticlimactic. Most of us had a good night’s sleep. I like your approach. Tip-toeing with masks and washing hands and maybe even toes, depending on the mutation of the virus. We have seen a lot this year. I wonder if we have learned anything and if we will take any real steps that can create a better outcome for all. Keep your socks on. Be safe.”
I noted, “I remember wondering if all our computers would spontaneously melt down at midnight. Or if we'd even be around to talk about it the next morning. Pure reason said, ‘It's just a date on a calendar.’ Fear said, ‘But what if it isn't?’”
Then I remembered other situations when people objected to infringement of what they saw as personal freedoms: “When seat belts were introduced, 50 years ago, there was the same reaction as to masks today -- ‘Nobody's gonna force me to wear one of those things!’ But there were no rallies, no protest movements, against seat belts. When, and how, did we develop this conviction that every cause has to be supported by mass rallies and violent protest?”
To which Bob replied, “How did we develop the idea that Democracy meant total freedom to do what we want regardless of what is good for society? The current trend in society seems to be towards power and privilege. This may have begun in the Church or before. While we celebrate a new vision of peace annually, the meaning is only clear to a few and its evolution has been a constant target as it was BC.”
After watching Trump’s legions storm the U.S. Capitol yesterday, I wonder if we were being prophetic.
Psalm 29, in the traditional translations, emphasizes the absolute power of God as the source behind everything. My early paraphrases of this psalm played into that view. I don’t believe anymore that causes has reasons for causing landslides and volcanos and droughts. I tried putting it this way, instead:
1 Don't hang your hopes on human capabilities.
2 Science and technology, wealth and popularity -- these will all pass away.
3 Fame and fortune will not save you when disaster strikes.
The winds whirl in; wild waters tear away your shores.
4 Houses collapse like cards; corporations crumble; assets become worthless.
5 In the storms of life, mighty empires are uprooted.
6 You stand as naked and helpless as the day you were born.
Your possessions, your wealth, your status are useless to you.
7 There is just you and God.
8 You tremble like a twig in a tempest.
9 All that you depended upon is stripped away, like the last leaves from autumn trees.
10 Faced with your own frailty, you may sink into despair.
Nothing can save you -- except the comforting presence of God.
God is always there, supporting you as water supports a fish.
11 God’s all-encompassing compassion is greater than any human crisis.
Only God can sustain you through the storm,
and carry you to the calm on the other side.
You can find paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary in my book Everyday Psalmsavailable from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com.
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
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ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)