I’ve been staring out the window of this coffee shop for more time than I’d like to admit. Watching the train go by every 10 or 15 minutes, looking up to see a dad walk by with his curly-haired daughter in his arms, seeing people pop open their umbrellas as the rain starts coming down harder.
I had every intention to write today – excited to finally have an afternoon with a few free hours. Between brunch at a new French restaurant in Hayes Valley and cooking dinner for a few of my girlfriends at my apartment in the Inner Sunset, I planned to hole up at my favorite coffee shop in the Haight and open my laptop to type out the words that had been floating in my head all week. To pull together the thoughts that I’ve jotted down in the notes app of my phone, waiting to come to life in a blog post or a new addition to Enough.
But once I actually got the white space I craved – the margins to write and process – I got stuck. I’d gotten so used to the running-around, back-to-back meetings lifestyle that it took me a while to settle down, calm my mind, and allow the words to come out.
The older I get, the more it feels like life is getting pushed up into the margins. Like there’s very little white space left.
Instead, my calendar is a mosaic of meetings and birthday parties and church events with a handful of dates with James and family gatherings thrown in to keep me sane.
But I don’t feel especially sane. I feel a little frenzied.
If my life were a book, the words would be bleeding across each page, no room for my eye to rest or to simply pause for a minute to make sense of what’s happening. If it weren’t for moments of connection with my dear friends and family, I’d lose it for sure.
Although, I have lost something. Something I long to get back. Something I cultivated over the last year – especially during my month-long sabbatical – that I know I need. And that’s the practice of silence and solitude.
Practicing Silence and Solitude
I refer to silence and solitude as a practice because they are. Neglected for too long, it will become increasingly uncomfortable to rest. In some ways, it’s like when you haven’t run in weeks and you finally get back on the pavement, and your legs are aching several days later. You know it’s good for you, but it feels strange after too much time away.
Silence and solitude is the same way. When I first started practicing (i.e. choosing to be still, quiet, and alone when I could have been doing something else), it was awkward and almost anxiety-producing. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t feel productive.
Should I go for a walk or just sit here? Can I listen to music? Maybe I should abandon this and just call up a friend…
Those thoughts and questions bounced around my head the first few times I set aside this “quiet time.” My mind was really anything but quiet.
But the more I honored that time – pushing through the discomfort and choosing to be still – the more I came to crave it. I’d sit out in the sun, explore the park by myself, or linger a bit longer at the beach with no real agenda. And as I did, silence and solitude became like new friends. I didn’t really feel “alone” because I found that this practice had something to offer me. (For more resources on practicing silence and solitude, read below.)
Sitting in stillness is a lot like sitting down for a cup of coffee with a friend. The benefits aren’t obvious on the face of it. But afterward, you realize just how much you needed to talk with that person, to have the kindness of their listening ear, and to simply be with someone who knows you well.
That’s what it’s like when I’m in the practice of “quiet time.” I’m with myself – someone I’ve come to know a bit better in recent years – and I’m with God, the one who knows me fully (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I’m sorry I’ve neglected these relationships – this time for connection with myself and with my God. I’m sorry I’ve chosen business over just being. I’m sorry I’ve run around in circles in my head – trying to figure out how to solve a problem or make my life look different – before finally running to God.
Thankfully, God is quick to forgive and happy to lavish love and wisdom on us.
Holding the Scales in Balance
This week, he reminded me that he is the one holding things together in my life. If I make more space for silence and solitude, things aren’t going to fall apart. In fact, that’s exactly what I need to keep it together and to see the realization of the things I hope for (Hebrews 11:1). I need space to rest and trust.
But that’s rarely the story we tell ourselves. Instead, it can feel like we’re trying to keep a bunch of plates spinning in the air. And at any moment, they could come crashing down. And then? Everyone will know we failed. We couldn’t keep it together. We weren’t strong enough. We let people down.
But that’s not a true story. It’s a lie.
The truth is that we’re not spinning plates in the air. No, those plates are more like steady scales. Scales held in balance, not by our own strength but by the strong arms of our good creator-father-maker-sustainer God.
This image of God holding the scales of our lives in balance reminds me that he’s not only strong, but he’s also just. He knows how to keep things in balance – if we’ll let him.
I’m so glad I pushed through the discomfort of silence and solitude today. Because once I did, I experienced the joy on the other side. The clarity of mind, the stillness of soul, and the peace that always comes when I write.
I know it’s only going to get harder to make space for creative work or for silence and solitude as the years go by. My friends who are married and having their first kids and buying (or building!) houses can certainly attest to that fact. But I think that’s why it’s so critical to practice stillness now. To protect our margins like we do exercise and sleep and eating three meals a day (not that we’re always the best at keeping those healthy practices either). To calendar in time for silence and solitude and honor that commitment.
Because if we don’t have margins, where will we rest? Where will we process what’s happening on the pages of our lives? Where will we breathe?
Look to What Is Unseen
The Scriptures talk about looking to the “things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). A lot of people interpret that verse to mean “look to Heaven” and what’s coming in that beautiful eternity. And that’s certainly true.
But I think that verse also applies to our daily lives. We’re to look for the things that are unseen – the things that happen in the margins, and the people who are feeling a bit marginalized themselves.
After all, that’s what God is all about. He looks at the motivations of the heart (1 Samuel 16:7) – the things that aren’t seen on the surface – and he constantly seeks out the lost and lonely.
He’s seeking me.
He’s seeking you.
In silence and stillness, we can hear his call – often a whisper (1 Kings 19:11-13) – as well as the call of the people that we overlook when we’re too busy, too stressed, too tired to make space for them.
So, I’m recommitting to margins. To white space and stillness. To making time to process before just pushing through life. And I’m praying that I’ll be faithful to steward this time well. That I won’t waste it with Netflix and mindless activities. That I’ll choose life-giving rest so that I can pour out my life more to others.
I’m so thankful that Christ perfectly exemplified that balance of rest and service. There are so many examples of him withdrawing to “lonely places” to pray and looking for “solitary” and “secluded” spots to rest (Luke 4:42, 5:16). I want to learn from him. To follow his way. To take his yoke upon me and rest. To learn from his easy and light way of being (Matthew 11:29).
And that’s my prayer for you too. That you may protect the margins in your life. And that as you press through the initial discomfort of silence and solitude, you will find a greater sense of peace on the other end. All the while knowing that it’s your Maker, the one who knows you so well, who’s holding everything in balance. Because when you do, that’s when you can let go. That’s when you can truly rest.
God, I look to you
I won’t be overwhelmed.
Give me vision
To see things like you do.
God, I look to you
You’re where my help comes from.
Give me wisdom
You know just what to do.
– “God, I Look to You,” Jenn Johnson
P.S. Two of my favorite books on the practice of silence and solitude are Bonnie Gray’s Finding Spiritual Whitespace and Ruth Haley Barton’s Invitation to Solitude and Silence. It’s also something I write about in Enough since rest and stillness were critical to my recovery from perfectionism. So if you’d like to learn more about this road to recovery for yourself, sign up here to be the first to know about updates on Enough.