For a palate cleanser today, let’s talk about … not talking. As many of you already know, I spent almost four days in a silent retreat last weekend starting on Thursday afternoon, my third year in a row of engaging in an Ignatian retreat. I wrote about it in my column for The Week today, which prompted one interesting response on Twitter:
— Joseph Finn (@JosephFinn) July 22, 2014
Well, hopefully not “insufferable.” It’s been an interesting, enlightening, and ultimately humbling experience, which is the aspect I shared in the column today:
More and more, all of us live under the expectation of constant connection. We barely get time for sleeping, let alone having regular intervals of the quiet solitude needed to process all of this data to find its meaning. Ubiquitous connection rarely goes unused, either by those looking for people who are taking a break, or more so by the break-takers themselves. We feel compelled to post to social media when we should be socializing with family and friends, and tweeting life as observers instead of living it.
It’s easy to feel victimized by this, but it’s really a self-inflicted conceit. We become the center of our own worlds, with the constant connection a validation of our own importance. The removal of that connection does not disturb anyone else, but the removal of that validation makes it clear that the world spins on without us. And when we return, we discover that not much really changes in the time we spent away from social media, away from the office, and even away from friends and family.
Even when I knew it was coming, that realization still had its shock effect. When I returned home this time, I tarried on the drive, making a couple of stops along the way for groceries after discovering (in a cell phone call that began just as I cleared the gates of the retreat center) that my wife had missed me but otherwise had a perfectly fine weekend without me. Over 280 emails awaited me when I got back to my computer — but only three of them required a reply. While stories arose and developed on the newswires, media outlets, and Twitter, my colleagues handled them just fine without me. It took me very little time to re-enter the online media environment, and few noticed my absence or my return.
Withdrawing from the world turns out not to be transgressive after all, but it’s edifying. What reallyfrightens us about going entirely silent, disconnecting, and gaining some perspective is also what make it so valuable. We depart believing in some way that we’re God, and then return realizing that we’re not. Even if that’s all I gained from this retreat — and it’s not — it would have been time well spent.
I got much more from this retreat than this understanding, of course, but this is a worthwhile lesson, too. The awareness of one’s own place in the universe is never quite so pointed as when one returns from this disconnection to find that the world kept spinning without you, or more precisely, without everyone’s awareness of you. That’s not an argument for concluding that one’s input has no worth, but it does keep it in somewhat better perspective.
Normally, I link to a few other posts when writing about my columns, and I almost added this to the post about Timothy Egan’s column this weekend, which I was fortunate enough to miss during my retreat. On further thought, though, it seemed out of place to tie this to other topics. Read it all, and I’ll look forward to your comments.