On Solitude One More Time

Man studyingSeveral weeks ago I mentioned an article by William Deresiewicz called “Solitude and Leadership.” The article was adapted from a speech Deresiewicz gave to the plebe class at the Military Academy at West Point. It appears in the spring issue of The American Scholar. Because I’ve been reflecting on this notion of solitude, I’d like to pull out a few more thoughts from this article.

Here is the way Deresiewicz opens his speech to this group of highly accomplished young men and women. He begins by saying he wants to talk about the need for solitude, but then confesses that

Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.

I find this very interesting. I think about my own life in leadership — too busy so often to find time to step back and think, and yet recognizing all the while the need for such time. I think also about my own students. I believe these are among the finest students you will find anywhere, bright, capable, curious, with hearts attuned to making the world a better place. But do we teach for these students the art and the discipline for solitude? Or are we teaching for them lives that are frenetic, overwhelmed by demands to keep up, swept up in what seems to be uncontrollable, unmanageable busyness?

If we desire for them to become the leaders for our communities and for our world, as I most certainly do, do we model for them the Deresiewicz’s notion “that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership”?

Deresiewicz goes on to say that

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going.

What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army — a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision.

Perhaps some of this language is a little exaggerated, but I sense there is some truth here. We are moving too fast. We are attending to too many things. We try all the time to multitask. We are not leaving time to think, to reflect, and for me, importantly, time to pray and study and seek to align myself with what God sees as good and important in my work.

A century and a half ago, just as our country was cranking up with tremendous energy for the industrial revolution, some of our seminal authors and thinkers, people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau, were issuing some eloquent caution about losing the art of solitude. They talked about some lofty ideals of independent thinking and deep reading and learning to be alone and learning to be in the moment. These are good lessons for us to remember in this moment in our own history and in our lives.

But one need not turn to the authors of our boisterous, active nation. As I mentioned in my last post, our roots for this need for solitude lie in the beautiful model of Jesus, who, when the going got tough, as it always will, sought out a remote place to be alone. If Deresiewicz is right, this is exactly what we need for our day.