A friend of mine likes to tell the story of the time he was in military survival training and he was forced into a cage to simulate what a prisoner of war might experience. The cage, he says, was small, hot, and dark. After a few hours of struggling, he found a way to position his body that, though very tight, was tolerable. A few minutes later, he fell asleep. In fact, his sleep was so deep that several hours passed and the training ended. The trainers, upon finding him asleep, unlocked his cage and walked away. Upon waking, his struggles resumed.
This went on for several more hours until he again returned to sleep as his coping mechanism. As his friends who had participated in the drill alongside him were celebrating their completion of the exercise into the morning hours, they began to realize he was missing from the celebration. After calling around for a while, they returned to the exercise ground to find him still sleeping in that tiny cage. After waking him, they reveled in informing him that he had spent hour after hour in an unlocked cage. He had become so comfortable in his captivity that he failed to realize his freedom.
I tell this story in response to a question I have been getting a lot lately. “Where have you been?” has been the most common question I’ve been asked over the last few weeks as I’ve run into people, and I think this story serves as a good metaphor for my life over the past few months.
This year has not really gone as I had planned. I had hoped for less anxiety and more stillness, but so far, that hasn’t really been the case. Work-related issues for both my wife and me along with a few other events, while small in the grand scheme of things, have led to a great deal of stress, change, and frustration that has snowballed.
By late May, it got to be too much. Being an introvert, when negativity starts to build up, I go into a shell. Made of a mix of anxiety, anger and self-pity, this shell became a pretty comfortable cage in which I could hide. Once locked inside, for all intents and purposes, I fell off the map. I stopped blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking. Despite being an already private person, I became even more private and withdrawn. Even Sunday mass became an exercise in avoiding contact with friends because I didn’t want to talk about some of the things that had happened. I buried myself in work to take my mind off of things, and even took on new projects to ensure that I was always busy.
After a while, I got comfortable in my cage. I began to mistake isolation and withdrawal for peace and tranquility. This is where my story diverts a bit from that of my friend. Not long after my withdrawal began, I understood what was happening and that I was isolated by my own choosing, but continued anyway.
“Who sits in solitude and in quiet hath escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing: yet against one thing he continually battles: that is, his own heart.”
–St. Anthony the Great
What I’ve learned is that seclusion, like many other things is okay in moderation. A number of Catholic spiritual movements revolve around some form of isolation. From St. Ignatius Loyola, who recommends periods of solitary silence as part of his spiritual exercises, to St. Anthony the Great and other “hermit saints” (including my patron, St. Kevin of Glendalough), who withdrew from society more permanently to draw closer to God. For me, the time of isolation allowed me to work through much of the anger, frustration and negativity of the situations in which I found myself.
“[T]he two fundamental poles of human existence: solitude and communion.”
— His Holiness Benedict XVI
However, seclusion is a spiritual tool that when used too much can become a detriment. Even these great saints found balance in their seclusion through service to their communities. Additionally, there can come a point where the things we isolate ourselves from become the things that are trapping us. Like my friend who managed to sleep so soundly in a cage, I allowed myself to be willingly confined by all of these circumstances, but after three months of sleeping, I think it is time for me to wake-up and leave my cage.