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If you’ve ever tried to be still, just still, you know how hard this is.

We long for noise, distractions–anything to spare us from admitting to ourselves that things are not as they should be: TV, books, music, other people, complaining, that non-stop, self-serving, chatterbox we call our “thoughts.”

Why is it so hard to be alone? Perhaps because we feel awkward in unfamiliar company.

Isn’t it true of human beings that no matter what we may do, the best of what we name ‘me’ seems to elude our understsanding? Why is it that no matter what I do, and even at times do well, I am never satisfied? Why, when I am honest with myself, do I discover that I am always on a hunt, not even particularly knowing what I am hunting for” (Listen to the Desert, 3).

Just sit there. Without distractions. If you are feeling brave, even (try to) tell your mind to take a chill pill for 10 minutes. Just sit there. Alone.

It takes courage to move into unfamiliar territory.

It is no small act of courage to face squarely the fictions of your life and the troubling sense that something isn’t quite right about our life. Scapegoating, excuses, self-pity, are common disguises that shield us from deep-seated doubt. These fictions, these acceptable deceptions, are the way we distract ourselves from the nagging suspicion that at the bottom of what I call ‘me’ is something terribly disturbing” (LTTD, 5).

Isolation was a habit the desert fathers and mothers cultivated. They would sit in their cells, alone. They knew there was a valuable lesson to be learned there–alone with only themselves, without the distractions of the games we play with others and ourselves.

Alone, in your cell–whether actual or metaphorical–is where you learn what you need to know about who you are…who you really are. No gimmicks.

Sitting in their cell was no cowardly removal from the bad old nasty world. They were not shrinking from the world. They were brave enough to face themselves, and knew that the demands of daily life worked non-stop to keep them in a dream-existence of their own making.

Neither is this narcissistic self-absorption. That is what happens when we look inward a few millimeters, allowing our false selves to remain unchecked. Leave that to Oprah and Dr. Phil. God will not guide you there.

What the desert dwellers were after was a clear, unburdened, honest view into themselves. And this takes guts.

Do not many of us lack the courage to look into ourselves and name what we see for what it is? Would we not rather look at others and name their shortcomings?

How many truly know themselves with brutal, god-like, honesty?

Learning to be alone a little more can be a beginning to seeing past the masks we wear, not only to posture for others, but for ourselves–because we do not want to see what is there.

And so much of our private and public posturing happens in church.

Maybe God calls us inward from time to time. At the end of the day–both literally and metaphorical of death–our true selves cannot be propped up by others or our false selves.

If we accustomedly flee our loneliness and the lessons it has to teach us, hiding behind the excitement around us and in social company, then we will greet [this] advice with a goodly portion of dread. If, on the other hand, we are weary of the shallow trivialities of the social order and afflicted by the inane discourse of most human communication, then you will likely feel relief at the advice….Whichever way we react, we do not enter the cell alone” (LTTD, 8)

[This post is based on chapter one of Listen to the Desert, Gregory Mayers: “Your Cell Will Teach You.”]

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Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.