Finding a Rhythm of Solitude and Community in Retirement

By Dr. Terry Nyhuis

Lately, I’ve been turning two very different quotes around in my mind. This is not unusual, as often what I’m reading and meditating on in the morning stays with me for days, or weeks. What is interesting about these two particular quotes, is that one calls me to solitude and silence while the second calls me to community and engagement.

As for solitude and silence, then Cynthia Bourgeault says in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening,

“Virtually every spiritual tradition that holds a vision of human transformation at its heart also claims that a practice of intentional silence is a non-negotiable. Period. You just have to do it .”

And in “The Inside of Life” in her Collected Papers, Evelyn Underhill states,

“[W]e cannot get on alone, in religion or anything else. Our spiritual life must be a social life too. We can each only manage a bit of it—it is far too big and various in its richness for any one soul…Wonder and love are caught, not taught; and to catch them we must be in an atmosphere where we are sure to find the germs. A living Church ought to be full of the germs of wonder and love.”

Hermits and Socialites

I know retired people who are virtually hermits. They withdraw from community and interaction, drawing into themselves. It sometimes takes me weeks to schedule a time to meet with one friend and retired colleague. He’s not that busy; it takes him that much time to build the energy for him to connect with me. He certainly has the solitude side of his life solidly in place.

I know other retired people who say, “I’ve never been busier.” They live constantly on the go, involved in groups and activities. When I meet with one person I love and respect—once I get on his calendar—I feel like I am sitting in a gale of shifting energy and attention. He is connected to the point of distraction. I am weary and hyper at the end of our time together and yearn for solitude to let the stress go.

A Rhythm of Solitude and Community

Those two friends represent extreme ends of the spectrum. Most of us will fall somewhere in between the two. So that raises the question: How do we honor both solitude and community?

Personally, I don’t think of it as trying to balance solitude and community. Nor is it living with paradox, holding both solitude and community in some kind of creative tension. Instead, I see solitude and community as a naturally occurring rhythm in my life.

I cherish my time alone. Retirement gives me space to spend hours a day in relative quiet and solitude. The other day, I sat for an hour imagining myself expanding into a mysterious Void, letting go of my safe boundaries. I saw myself as a speck on the earth, which is a speck in a solar system, which is a speck in a galaxy, which is a speck in a universe, which is a speck in the All. That’s not the kind of thing one imagines without lots of—some might say, too much—time for quiet reflection. As a result, I came out of that time less full of myself and more open to mystery and wonder.

Retirement also gives me space for community. It provides the perfect environment for rich, personal connections with family, friends, and fellow contemplatives. I used to build toys with my dad for hours a week, saying little, as we connected deeply. Some afternoons I spend a couple of hours in Starbucks chatting with a dear friend. Another day I might Facetime a trusted friend, one with whom I resonate deeply. Once a week I connect with my editor and partner in crime to talk about what we’ve been working on, where we are, and where we want to go- and how to get there.

Like waves breaking on shore, there is a rhythm to my life, between time spent alone and shared with others.

A Carryover from Solitude into Community, from Community into Solitude

As I live within this rhythm of solitude and community, I notice how each carries over and enriches the other.

The quiet of my solitude carries over into my time with others. I am learning to remain centered and present with others more consistently. Compassion flows from my solitude into my connections. For instance, I recently spoke with someone who was tense and distracted by complexity in his life. I didn’t get caught up in it. After an hour, I sensed him relaxing a bit, resting into our conversation, and breaching more deeply. Calm born in my solitude gently settled into our connection.

It’s not a one-way flow from solitude to community. Connections also enrich my solitude and keep it real.

One morning, during a time of quiet solitude, I remembered a friend who is deeply entangled in the anxiety of our current political tension. I identified with her anxiety and knew compassion for her and others like her who have been drawn into strong reaction and frustration. The spaciousness of retirement gave me room to empathize with her anxiety, accept it, and let it go. Perhaps I will be able to help her let some of it go as well.

I am finding retirement to be an amazing time to deepen both solitude and community in my life. I hope to always hold and nurture a healthy, life-giving rhythm of both.

To read more about the specter of community living in retirement, click here.

For a look at another of my morning reflections, check this out.

Featured photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash.


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