I can spend days in solitude — reading, writing, working on puzzles, going for long walks. I love to be alone.
In my childhood, I would retreat to my room to listen to the same song over and over again on a record player, spend hours in the side yard of our house twirling my baton, read a whole afternoon away in the living room recliner, and take solo rides on my bike to the boundaries of the small town I grew up in.
As an adult, I have looked forward to whatever private moments I have been able to carve out for myself — reading, writing, walking. Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and family with a deep committed love. However, while I enjoy lively family dinners and picnics with friends, I also long to retreat to solitude — sometimes to a fault.
In fact, when the going gets tough — when I am battling interior or exterior demons — I tend to go a little beyond solitude to isolation. If my troubles seem a bit too heavy to bear, I might bunker down in a small cubicle on the top floor of a library every evening for an entire semester, for example. If I’m barely surviving my responsibilities, I might put on a veneer of friendliness over a heavily armored soul before venturing out among the citizenry. I am not quick to reach out; I am sure to turn in.
My husband, on the other hand, is very intentional about connecting with others. Wherever we have been, he has initiated small group interaction. He believes so strongly in the power of community that he makes it happen, often in spite of my foot dragging.
“I’d like to start a small group in our house on Saturday nights. Ok?”
“Every Saturday night? Who? Why?”
My introverted self whines and moans, and then I tidy the house, make some food, and open the door. I’m always glad I did, but it is not in my nature to initiate it. I tend toward the solitary.
In St. Louis, we led a small group community that started one Monday night when my husband said, “I invited two guys over tonight. You don’t have to do anything, but I think they are going to come every week.” I sighed and grumbled “every week?” as I quickly kicked shoes into closets and threw dishes into cupboards.
I’d been soldiering internally at the time, and I wasn’t looking forward to anyone getting too close. The thin veneer that I wore into public spaces was tenuous at best. We were a bit of a mess, truth be told, and I didn’t want anyone to see the ugly underbelly of our lives. However, my husband had been pressing for community, so finally, I gave in. What harm could a couple of grad students bring? Certainly we would be caring for them in their struggles, not vice versa. I could easily keep them at arm’s length.
They arrived after dinner — two young single guys who hadn’t eaten. We sat in our living room and chatted, read a few Bible verses, and prayed. At the end of an hour I heard myself telling them to arrive a little earlier the next week; I would have a meal ready for them. Before long, the two grew to about twenty young adults who crammed into our living room every week, eating whatever I happened to scrounge together. Sometimes we had guitar playing and singing, sometimes pranks and laughter, sometimes headier conversations.
At first, I maintained my comfortable food provider/discussion leader role, veneer firmly in place, but those kids had a habit of showing up, petting our dog, talking to our kids, lying around on our floor, and making me laugh that allowed them to worm their way beneath the armor and into my heart. This soldier who marched down school hallways kicking butts and taking names all day long, often went home on Monday nights, made a meal, and then quietly wept as these kids prayed for us — for our lives, for our children, for our health, for our future. When my husband moved to Ann Arbor a year before me, they kept coming to our house every Monday night without fail. They were a constant encouragement and a source of unconditional love. Toward the end, as we were emptying our house for the final move, they lugged furniture, painted walls, and scrubbed floors beside us.
I grieved leaving that group more than anything else that we left in St. Louis. They had taught me the value of community — of sharing life together, of listening to one another’s concerns, of helping to carry one another’s loads. Certainly, I thought, I would never find that kind of connection again.
I was wrong. Since I’ve been in Ann Arbor, I have had plenty of solitude and time for reflection, but I have also repeatedly found myself in close community. I landed in my Bible study battalion almost the minute I got here. Soon after that, I was sweetly surprised by reuniting with a college suite-mate who meets me for mall-walking that often leads to burden-sharing and tear-wiping — right there among the shoppers. A little over a year ago, I started getting out of bed at 6 am twice a month to join four other women for breakfast — we’ve read several books together and have grown close as we’ve discussed how these texts apply to our individual journeys. We are learning together how to be vulnerable, how to support one another, and how to take off our armor in the safe space that we have created.
Additionally, my husband and I have together recently joined a small group with other members of our congregation and are part of a launch team for a new worship service at our church. In each group we are hearing stories, making connections, and finding meaning. We’re leaning in to difficult conversations, we’re praying over one another, and we’re building community.
I am continually overwhelmed by the richness of these relationships — the kind that can see the underbelly with compassion rather than judgment, that can sit in the difficulty rather than searching for solutions, that can both laugh and cry within the space of an hour.
I had learned these lessons earlier in life, to be sure, but in my soldiering years I forgot, probably because I was so intent on guarding, protecting, and surviving. I didn’t want to let anyone in; I didn’t want them to look under the armor and find out that I was wounded and weak.
Truthfully, it doesn’t always feel pleasant to peel off the armor and expose what’s beneath. I would prefer to keep my unspoken broken* just that, but in the safety of close community, wounds are witnessed, tears are shed, and healing begins. And not just mine.
As it turns out, everyone has their stuff — their unspoken broken — health issues, failed relationships, struggles with work, and money, and time. The surprise to me was that when others saw the pus-filled wounds beneath my armor, they didn’t gag and look away; they leaned in, applied some balm, and showed me their own scars. I didn’t feel judged, but loved.
Building community takes bravery, commitment, and time. It’s worth it, even for a lone soldier like me.
Continue meeting together, encourage one another.
*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way