I’ve quit the news business twice in my life.
In 2015 I was managing editor of one of the most popular news sites in the country and I left. I got burned out. The 24/7 news cycle was killing me. No, really. I started having health problems. I got shingles as a 20-something because of the stress. My anxiety, while under more control than ever, was still high. So I gave it up. I quit. I was tired, burned out, and exhausted.
About four years later, I found myself back at it. While it was a different and admittedly less stressful position, I was still in the news business. It started doing the same things. After another two years, I made the drastic decision to start my own business and get out once again.
Why do I tell you that? Because at multiple times in my life I’ve sworn off the news because it makes me anxious. See, when I follow the news, I FOLLOW the news. It sucks me in. And it’s not healthy.
Which is why what I’m about to tell you is important.
A few weeks ago I was sitting on my couch. I think the kids had a show on, maybe “Gabby’s Doll House” or something like that. I started getting disturbing alerts.
Russia. Ukraine. Tension. War.
I immediately dove in and started reading up. Within about 15 minutes I looked up from my phone, stared right at my wife, and said, “We’re on the verge of WWIII.”
A few weeks removed, and I still believe that statement. I’m not saying it definitely will happen, but I think it’s as close as we’ve been. And as the words “nuclear” get thrown around more and more, it’s unsettling.
In times like this, as war rages, as tension increases, and as futures get more and more uncertain, I know as someone with anxiety that I have a tendency to retreat. To shrink back. To isolate.
You don’t have to have diagnosed anxiety and OCD like me for that to be true, too. In fact, when bad times come, when stressful times come, there’s a temptation for a lot of us to isolate ourselves. We retreat inward and shut off everything that’s outward.
I’m here to tell you there’s a better way. That better way? Solitude.
“Ummm, Jon, you just said isolation was bad. Now you’re suggesting solitude?”
I know it may be confusing, so let me explain. Isolation and solitude are two very different things. One is retreating, one is refreshing. One is harmful, one is helpful. One is destructive, one is constructive.
I love how an old Psychology Today article puts it: “Loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation. Solitude, on the other hand, is a state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness.”
In other words, isolation is not an effort to confront what’s going on and deal with it; it’s running away from it all, and it’s unhealthy. In solitude, however, hard work – whether that’s on your anxieties or your fears – can still get done. In isolation, those fears fester.
That temptation to isolate because of what’s going on in the world is strong. But when I feel that tug – when you feel that tug – the better way is to seek solitude. To rejuvenate instead of retreat.
I like to take my cues from people who are much wiser than myself. One of those people? Jesus. In the Bible, there are several stories about how Jesus himself practiced solitude in difficult times. He used it not to run away from the mess but to confront it. He sought guidance and prayer. Time and time again, he did this. In fact, the Bible says “he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.”
I like to think that if Jesus did it, so should I. And I think that’s a pretty good bet. And in this current era where bad news dominates, solitude can be the “one little trick” to keep us sane.
I like what author Richard Foster says about solitude. It helps me understand its importance, especially when it comes to what matters most:
In our day God is using the spiritual discipline of solitude as the great liberator. Solitude liberates us from all the inane chatter that is so characteristic of modern life. It liberates us from the ever-present demands that are put upon us; demands that in the moment feel so urgent and pressing but that in reality have no lasting significance. In solitude the useless trivialities of life begin to drop away. We are set free from the many ‘false selves’ we have built up in order to cope with the expectations others place upon us—and we place upon ourselves. Solitude empowers us to walk away from all human pretense and manipulation.
Do you notice what’s prevalent in that description? Contentment. Fulfillment. Solitude involves peace. Isolation, on the other hand, involves loneliness and, ironically, can still be quite chaotic. In solitude, you can find God. In isolation, you plummet deeper into your empty self.
That doesn’t mean solitude is easy. Sometimes it can be quite scary to be alone with your thoughts and forced to confront some of the anxieties. But sometimes we need to press into the scary. We need to be scared so we throw ourselves into the arms of the only One who can sufficiently comfort us. It takes practice, especially for someone whose mind races a lot and tends to look for quick fixes. But it’s worth it. In an era when technology makes us more available and plugged in than ever (especially to the news), we need to make conscious efforts to unplug, to get away, and to just be.
So what does solitude look like? It doesn’t have to be a weekend away by yourself in the woods, although I’ve done that and it’s glorious. Sometimes it can be a 30 minute walk where you leave your phone at home and just breathe in the fresh air. Sometimes it can mean intentional prayer in your backyard. Other times it can mean going for a drive with the windows down. In all of it, it’s introspective and – as I’ve found – conversational with the One who created you.
I can tell you it is NOT letting your mind race and entertaining all the “what ifs.” That’s not refreshing. It’s destructive.
Friend, I know that in times like this there is a great temptation to do that, though. We start thinking about “worst case scenarios.” Our minds go to what may happen to our kids, to us, to our country, and to our finances. And when that happens, we often look for a quick exit ramp.
I’m here to tell you that instead of looking for any ol’ exit ramp, you need to look for the rest stop. There’s something so much better when you choose the latter over the former.
Isolation breeds more anxiety. Solitude breeds rest and recovery. I’m not promising you that you’ll find all the answers in solitude. But I do know that if you make a practice of seeking it, you’ll actually get something better than all the answers. There you’ll find God, the great comforter. Who despite the crud in this world can offer peace.
Invest the time in the rest stop. It’s worth it. Trust me.