Valerie Holladay, “Walk in the Wilderness,” Ensign, Jul 1998, 46
“I’m lonely,” remarks Marilyn, retired grandmother. “My children are all too busy to visit much.”
“I never have a second to myself,” says Sharon, busy mother of three. “There’s always so much to do, and someone always needs something right now!”
“I don’t really like to be alone,” says Jared, college student. “It just feels strange. I’d rather be doing something with my friends.”
Different seasons of our lives may provide us with too much time alone or not enough. Being alone can be peaceful or disturbing. It can be a time of discovery and self-renewal or a time for worry and regret. I have learned that we can be nourished and enriched by solitude, whether we find ourselves with too much or too little, as we pass through the different seasons of our lives.
Before Christ began his ministry, he was “led of the Spirit into the wilderness to be with God” (JST, Matt. 4:1). Later, when he heard that his beloved cousin John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod, Jesus again sought strength in solitude as he “departed thence by ship into a desert place apart” and “went up into a mountain to pray” (Matt. 14:13, 23).
Solitude promises those same opportunities for growth and peace to everyone. The Lord assures us that in solitude and silence we can come to know him and to feel his companionship: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
Many of the Lord’s chosen sons and daughters have experienced “aloneness.” John the Baptist dwelt alone in the wilderness. Esther lived as a Jewish queen among a people who did not understand her, and she must have felt very alone at times. Ether the prophet hid in a desert cave away from people who sought to destroy him. Although the wilderness plays a number of different roles in the scriptures, one of its most important is to serve as a place where the Lord’s followers can be separated from worldly influences and be purified.
A more recent group of people—the Mormon pioneers—reflect the purification and prioritizing that often results from an encounter with the wilderness. Although the pioneers traveled as a group, many among the group experienced loneliness, rejection or loss of family and friends, and cultural isolation. These trials were not a sign of God’s displeasure or evidence that God had forgotten them. On the contrary, the isolation and suffering of the pioneers were a signal that God was mindful of them and had in fact chosen them for tremendous responsibilities and blessings.
Paradoxically, it is often when we feel most alone and neglected that we are struck most profoundly by the fact that our Heavenly Father is very much aware of us. This is because the potential for closeness to our Heavenly Father is greatest at these times. A member of the Martin Handcart Company described his experience in the wilderness as “the price we paid to become acquainted with God.” 1
Of course, one need not travel into the wilds “to become acquainted with God.” What is essential is that, while struggling with the demands of that wilderness called mortality, we find ways to communicate with God and to examine ourselves. Alma tells us one way we can do that. He reminds us to go to our “secret places” to “pour out [our] souls” to God “in [our] wilderness” (Alma 34:26). For most of us, we enter our “wilderness” alone in prayer. It is there that we communicate with our Maker—spirit to spirit—and come to know him as he is and, consequently, to know ourselves as we really are.
Does this mean that prayers offered in private are more effective than prayers offered in a crowd? Not necessarily. A prayer in a car, in a classroom, or in the middle of a conversation with someone can be just as heartfelt as any given alone. But a prayer in a silent place allows us to ponder our feelings long enough to recognize the voice of the Spirit and to gain a spiritual perspective on our problems.
Pondering is not anxious worrying. Pondering is peaceful listening to an inner voice that does not—and cannot—compete with the multitude of voices around us each day. While it appears to be the most leisurely of activities, pondering is one of the most strenuous. Usually, our thoughts race through what we must accomplish today, tomorrow, next week. Other times our thinking limps along over well-worn paths, refusing even to glance at possible alternate routes.
When we ponder, we should be as eager to listen as we are to ask. This means that we set aside our thoughts and desires to allow space for the Lord’s thoughts and desires to enter our minds and hearts. Saint Augustine described how we can handicap ourselves by overactivity when he said, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.” 2
It requires discipline and focus to plan for productive time alone. The ideas that follow have worked for me.
1. Decide that your time alone is as important as the time you give others. If necessary, schedule time for yourself in your planning book.
2. Get up earlier. Christ arose “a great while before day” (Mark 1:35). An extra half hour in the morning gives you time for yourself before you start to parcel yourself out to others.
3. Close your door and listen to your favorite music. Concentrate on letting your mind rest.
4. Be honest with others about your need for time alone. Tell them, “I would really like to talk with you, but I need some time to myself right now. Can I call you later tonight?”
5. Take a walk for short errands instead of using the car. Enjoy the scenery along the way and avoid the stress of driving in traffic. When you must drive, turn off the car radio and use the time for meditation. Relax your thoughts before racing off to an appointment or to pick up the children.
6. Write in your journal, focusing on your feelings and not on your activities. Ponder why you are doing what you do and if you are accomplishing what you really want to accomplish at this stage of your life.
7. If it is difficult for you to find time alone, pray for the knowledge and ability to use your time wisely and in ways that you will be grateful for.
8. Memorize a scripture or a meaningful thought. Let your mind return to it throughout the day as you ponder what it means in your life.
9. To stop useless worrying, list on a piece of paper all the problems you aren’t going to worry about, and put the paper in an envelope to be opened in two weeks. Time has an amazing power to dissipate problems.
10. Ponder your gifts. “To every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God” (D&C 46:11; emphasis added). If you are unsure of your personal gifts, ponder your successes and positive experiences. This will strengthen your belief in yourself, just as pondering the scriptures strengthens your testimony of the gospel. Hang portraits of your successes on the walls of your heart.
The Savior deliberately sought time alone, leaving behind the distractions of the world in order to better learn of his Father. By following his example, we too can come to know God—and in the process, come to know ourselves as well.
[illustration] Illustrated by Gary E. Smith
[photo] Photo © Tony Stone Images
[photo] Through private prayer and pondering, we make ourselves receptive to the quiet whisperings of the Spirit. (Photo by Jed Clark.)