Leave Me Alone

Remarks delivered at The Community Synagogue on Friday, November 23, 2018.


On Monday, a New York Times headline caught my eye: “An Illustrated Guide to Getting Out of Your Social Obligations.” Just in time for Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season, here were helpful tips for turning down all those well-meaning invitations to work parties, family gatherings, and festive get-togethers. Columnist Darcie Wilder wants to help us preserve our wellbeing by saying “no.”

Let’s say, for example, you just received your fifth invitation to a holiday gathering for the week. One strategy is to be honest, “You know, I just need a night to myself today.” Or you could be a little vague: “That sounds so fun, but I’m working on stuff today.” Maybe you start to cough in the face of the person who invited you: “I think I should go to the doctor or something—I may be getting sick.” But lying might not be the best choice. You could try to turn it around on them: “I have so much going on right now and I’m kind of freaking out and I don’t know how to handle it and do you have a moment to talk?”

Maybe these aren’t the greatest strategies. Maybe you’re the kind of person who actually loves to spend every waking hour socializing. But I thought the article was written just for me. I’m an introvert, and my favorite advice for party planning is: “Ain’t no party like an introvert party, ‘cause an introvert party is…canceled.”

Sometimes we just need to be left alone.

A pivotal moment in our people’s story occurs in parashat VaYishlach, but an important aspect of it is often overlooked. This is the episode in which our patriarch Jacob wrestles with a mysterious figure and emerges with a new name: Yisrael, Israel, the one who struggles with God. That name becomes our name; we are the people of Israel, spiritual descendants of Jacob. It is a transformational moment.

Here’s the overlooked detail: before Jacob’s midnight wrestling match, he sends his family and all his retinue across the river. “Vayivater Yaakov l’vado. Then Jacob was left alone, and someone wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Three Hebrew words make all the difference. For Jacob to be changed, he needed to be left alone.

In a world obsessed with interconnectivity and collaboration, sometimes transformation requires solitude.

According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, as many as one out of every two people in the room is, like me, introverted (Bored and Brilliant121). Consider if you recognize yourself “somewhere in the following constellation of attributes: reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk averse, thin-skinned” (Quiet, 269). You might be an introvert. Or, maybe you see yourself in these characteristics: “ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight” (ibid.). You might be an extrovert.

Most likely, none of us identifies with every item on one of those lists—and we might recognize ourselves in something from each in different contexts. There’s nothing intrinsically “better” about one type or the other. But, as Cain says, there’s no denying the meaningful roles these types play in our culture (ibid.). And this cultural dichotomy dates back thousands of years. When we first meet Jacob and his twin brother Esau, we learn about their dispositions: “As they grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp” (Genesis 25:27).

It’s no great revelation that our culture tends to value the extroverted, Esau type. We like “go-getters,” people energized by social interactions. So too in Jewish communities, we want participators and engagers; we even build togetherness into our prayers and rituals with the concept of minyan, that certain Jewish things are best done in a group of at least ten people.

This has its advantages. There’s no substitute for the power of a whole room full of people singing the same melody, and there’s no denying the power of having others around us in times of mourning or celebration. More people together can lead also to more ideas, more solutions, and more confidence for experimentation. But an introverted, Jacob model has something to offer as well.

Consider the trend in open-office plans. This is the idea that bringing members of an organization together in a single, shared workspace—increasing the number of face-to-face interactions—will boost creativity and productivity. But Harvard-funded research published this summer proves the opposite. People try to isolate themselves with large headphones while also trying to look as busy as possible in front of their peers—and they report increasing levels of dissatisfaction. Plus, too much information and social attention decreases one’s ability to focus and evaluate. And instead of getting up to talk to the people with whom someone is in the same room, they’ll just look up, see that the other person is at their desk, and send an email instead. The whole project is counterproductive.

If, on the other hand, we were to gather some exceptionally creative people and find out what makes them distinct, we would learn that solitude boosts creativity. This is exactly what Berkeley researches did in the 1950s and ‘60s. They discovered, as Susan Cain recounts in Quiet, that “the more creative people tended to be socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but ‘not of an especially sociable or participative temperament.’ They [are] independent and individualistic” (74).

This is not to say that introverts are always more creative than extroverts, as Cain is quick to point out, but it does suggest something we can alllearn from the introvert model: “solitude can be a catalyst to innovation” (ibid.).

Socializing can be fun—and having others around is important for comfort and camaraderie. But creativity flourishes in solitude.

Judaism has never been much for ascetic lifestyles—living in community is too important. But we do have a tradition of contemplative solitude, and its chief model and advocate is Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, the 18thand 19thcentury Chassidic master. He was a storyteller and a teacher, someone who sought joy without denying the reality of sadness. He believed wholeheartedly in the Oneness of Being—which he called God—and his goal was to experience that oneness himself.

Rebbe Nachman taught that the practice of hitbodedut, self-seclusion, is the best way to experience the Oneness of Being. Only by being alone, he taught, could we get past all our usual desires and our negative attributes—the things that get in the way of that Oneness. Hitbodedut is best practiced at times of day and in places when we can be free of worry, free of everyday business (Likutei Mohoran I:52).

Rebbe Nachman is known for going out into nature, by himself, to practice hitbodedut, self-seclusion. It was there, completely alone, that he felt, paradoxically, the least lonely. There he was most connected to the world, to God. “Know this,” he said, “every shepherd has a melody of their own, unique to the grasses around them and to the place they are. For each blade of grass has its own melody, which it lends to the song of the shepherd” (Ibid. II:63).

By ourselves, we can better tune into the music of the world. 

So, how do we do it? We carry phones that keep us constantly connected in our pockets and bags, and work and play now happen through social media and other forms of online interaction. Is it possible to disconnect and reallytake some alone time?

Manoush Zomorodi, who used to host a podcast about the human side of tech called Note to Self, developed a strategy for becoming what she calls “bored and brilliant.” She offers a challenge—and an opportunity—for bringing solitude into our lives and boosting our wellbeing. Maybe it can help us adopt the introvert, Jacob model, and allow us to open ourselves to transformation.

“Step I: Identify an aspect of your life that you’ve been confused by, avoiding, or downright terrified to think about. It could be something as large and as consequential as figuring out a new career path, or something a lot smaller, like why you never plan vacations and just where you’d go if you did take one. Perhaps you’d just like to come up with a new organizational system for the dry goods in your kitchen cabinets. The point is to name the issue that, whenever you think about solving it, you always seem to end up on Facebook instead.

“Step II: Set aside thirty minutes where you’ll be completely free from distraction—no kids in the other room or friends dropping by for a quick visit. Store away your phone, tablet, laptop, or any other digital device. Put a generous pot of water on the stove and watch it come to a boil. If you don’t have a stove or pot, find a small piece of paper and write ‘1,0,1,0’ as small as you can until the paper is full.

“Step III: Immediately after you’ve completed Step II, and are mind-numbingly bored, sit down with a pen and pad and put your mind to the task of solving the problem identified in Step I. […You] will bring your creativity and focus to whatever subject you’ve chosen. […] Don’t worry about executing the plan just yet—that will come in time. Right now, the goal is to use boredom to unlock a brilliant solution to your problem.”

 Bored and Brilliant, 163-164

A little bit of solitude can go a long way.

Contemporary poet David Whyte recognizes that seeking solitude is countercultural in our age. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century,” he writes, “to feel alone or want to be alone is deeply unfashionable: to admit to feeling alone is to reject and betray others, as if they are not good company, […] and to actually seek to be alone is a radical act” (Consolations, 5).

 And yet, he says, “It may be that time away from work, an idea of ourselves, or a committed partner is the very essence of appreciation for the other, for the work and for the life of another, to be able to let them alone as we let ourselves alone” (ibid.).

Being with others is important, but so is being by ourselves. To take alone time, to seek solitude, is a gift we give ourselves. It opens us to creativity and transformation, and it ignites our connection to the world and others around us.

So say “no” to some invitations. Find time to disconnect, and be by yourself. And with a little solitude, reconnect to what matters most.

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