Paul Prather

Solitude means never having to stand in line

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I can’t maintain my mental health without regular periods of solitude.

I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t hate people. Indeed, I like most people.

I just don’t feel the need to be around them all that much.

Generally, I work a lot from an office in my house, and generally in the mornings, my wife, Liz, rises and heads off to her job in Lexington before I’m out of bed.

I love my wife. That said, I also love those morning hours after I’m awake and she’s gone and the phone hasn’t started ringing yet and I’ve got the place all to myself.

I don’t have to explain my plans, or find out when she wants to eat, or answer any questions at all. It’s just me and my thoughts.

Liz is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise farm girl whose habits Ben Franklin would have admired. I’m a night owl. She often heads to bed by 9 p.m., and I’m rarely asleep before 1 a.m.

So almost every night, I’ve got four hours to watch old movies in the den or read a good history book or else just sit, stare at the coffee table and think. That’s my favorite part of the day.

None of this is a reflection on Liz. I’ve always been that way.

When I was a kid, first grade maybe, neighbor children would come over to ask if I could go play with them. Sometimes I went. But more often, I’d stand off to the side when my mother answered the door, where the other kids couldn’t see me, and signal frantically with my hands for her to tell them I wasn’t allowed to go outside.

I just wanted to play in my room by myself with my little plastic soldiers.

As a teenager, I enjoyed tromping through the fields of my grandparents’ farm for hours, not a soul in sight except cows, squirrels and sparrows.

For me, being alone rarely meant being lonely. For the most part, it still doesn’t.

Sure, I’ve been very lonesome sometimes: after my grandfather died, after my mom died, after my first wife died, after my son married and left home.

But those periods were the exceptions and were driven by upheaval; they’re not my norm.

Not only has it been rare for me to be lonely; I don’t think I’ve ever been bored.

That’s because I invariably have a narrative, or two or five of them, going on in my head. I’m thinking about some funny thing that happened when I was a young pastor, or holding both sides of a debate about a fiery op-ed piece I read in the newspaper, or, Walter Mitty-like, fighting my way out of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in 1965.

My mind’s a busy place. Very little additional stimulus is required.

It’s strange that I’ve chosen to follow two lines of work — preaching and writing — that involve different types of public performances.

That’s something I don’t understand about myself: why a man who craves solitude as much as I do chooses to communicate week after week in public spheres.

People ask where I get my ideas for all the columns I write or all the sermons I preach.

I usually tell them my creativity is sparked by the hangman’s noose of a deadline dangling over my head. But that’s only partly true.

The full truth is embarrassing. The full truth is, I get most of my ideas from talking to myself.

And that’s hard to do when other people are talking at me.

From what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure I’m a textbook introvert.

I can’t say how many preachers are introverts, but I do know that a lot of writers are. Maybe that’s why we write — to try to reach out to all those other people we’re not equipped to communicate with in real, daily life.

Often I envy the extrovert, who loves playing board games at parties and vacationing in Florida with the wife and six other couples and wedging into a packed Rupp Arena to watch basketball with 20,000 fellow sports fans. It must be awfully exciting.

Thoughts of such things give me the night sweats.

I guess each of us is just who the Lord made us to be. This is who I am.

And I could benefit from being more outgoing, but I’d also argue that there’s a lot to be said for solitude.

You never have to search for a seat. You never have to wait in line. You hear some great stories no one else hears. You get to know yourself really well. You have fewer arguments.

Once in a while, God even whispers to you.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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