When was the last time you set aside an evening to be alone?
Depending on your life’s circumstances, chances are you can look back in the last month or two and remember at least one evening that you spent without others around.
But with that said, I want to dig one level deeper.
When was the last time you set aside an evening to be alone, and didn’t turn on Netflix, or play a video game, or dive into a book?
It’s safe to assume that your answer just spanned much further into the past. I know mine did!
I ask these questions so we may discuss a vitally important pastime we are all too quick to forget in the busyness of our daily lives.
Let’s talk about the importance of self-reflection.
This is not a new practice. Self-reflection has been a priority for countless gentlemen who have gone before us, and they have paved the way for us to realize its importance by imploring us to be diligent in the practice of it. Carl Sandburg, a Pulitzer Prize winning American author and poet, had this to say about it:
“A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us…it is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, ‘Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?’…If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time—the stuff of life.”.
Mr. Sandburg went as far as to say we must be prepared to not only be alone, but to experience loneliness. In fact, he says that loneliness is necessary! Wow…what a statement! He calls men to be intentional about finding time to ask deeply reflective questions about our lives, or else we are in danger of wasting one of life’s most precious assets…time.
Do not take Mr. Sandburg’s words lightly, gentlemen. He does not only speak to men of the past. His words resonate more profoundly today than ever before.
We are to be good stewards of our time. And in a world with increasingly numerous distractions, that stewardship looks more and more like loneliness than it does like surrounding ourselves with constant activity.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting you live your lives separated from relationships with others. Here at the Modern Day Gentlemen, relationships are at the very core of what we do, and why we first formed the Distinguished Society of Fine Gentlemen.
There are several other articles in our archive that discuss topics like these. Relationships of accountability and growth are discussed in “Mentors’ A Gentleman’s Guide”. The complex dynamics of family relationships during the holidays are discussed in “Holiday Stress – Leading Well in Brokenness and Tension”. Or you can read about the life-giving relationship of an old friend in “The Importance of Old Friends in a Gentleman’s Life”. There are many others in which we tackle the vitally important topics surrounding our relationships with others and how that affects our ability to live and to lead well as gentlemen in this modern day.
So please, do not take my urging to explore loneliness as your ticket out of investing in those around you. My point is simply that we must, in addition to that investment, find time to reflect on areas of opportunity for growth and perspective in our own lives. In this way, we will become better able to serve and love those we are in relationships with.
This is a difficult area for so many men today. By-in-large, we don’t take well to the thought of turning the looking glass inward. It’s scary, it’s vulnerable, and for many men, it feels overly emotional and perhaps even foolish.
I would argue, however, that it is not the fool who spends time alone, but the man who is rich in wisdom. The man who leaves a legacy of impact, conviction, and purpose. I believe wholeheartedly that it is, in fact, the fool who surrounds himself with so much distraction that he is never required to think critically about his circumstances, decisions, or how they affect the path he is forging.
So what do I mean by “spending time alone in thoughtful self-reflection”? What does that even look like with our schedules that barely even give us enough time to sleep! Well, I certainly won’t pretend to say that it is easy. Setting aside a meaningful amount of time takes thoughtful planning and intentionality.
Make no mistake, the practice of self-reflection simply will not be a part of your life if you don’t make it a priority over other areas. So this requires not only forethought and planning, but also a commitment to the belief that it is worthwhile. Inevitably you will be pressured with other things that will threaten the time you have set aside for reflection. You will absolutely have to make the conscious decision to choose that time alone over any number of other priorities that are competing for your attention.
But please hear me when I tell you, gentlemen, that after several instances of you making that choice, you will find yourself so filled up and fed by that time that you will hardly be able to go without it.
I touched on this in an earlier paragraph, but I want to revisit it briefly. When I say “time alone” I do not mean time away from others that is filled with activities which only serve to further distract. When you finally get that time to yourself, it will be extremely tempting to turn on Netflix, or scroll through Social Media, or catch up on emails. But you must be on the lookout for these distractions as they appear. We are so programmed to need a constant intake of information that we go through a bit of a withdrawal when that is removed. Don’t be discouraged by this when you experience it. Simply press further into the richness of the stillness, and you will find that the desire for distraction fades away in the shadow of the peace you feel in the quiet.
Ok, so you’ve planned ahead and have stayed committed even as other priorities have made their way into your schedule. Bravo good man! You have done more than most have been able to accomplish. But now what? How can you ensure this time is meaningful and helpful?
Every man will have to try different things until he discovers what is truly life giving and beneficial for his time. But there are several actions that can be proactively taken that will help just about anyone with practicing self-reflection. I will list those for your reference below.
Shut off communication
Do not allow your time to be interrupted. Priority number 1 is ensuring your phone is off, and you don’t bring any other devices with you that will allow people to get ahold of you. If you are someone who is better able to relax and reflect with music, then try storing some music locally on your phone and turning it on airplane mode.
Remove external distractions
Though self-reflection doesn’t demand complete silence, you should be careful to remove as many distractions as you can. For example, if at all possible, don’t go a coffee shop where you will easily be tempted to watch others interact or want to step in an out of your thoughts by getting up to get a coffee or saying hi to a friend that you see.
Know what is helpful and implement those things
There are many men who find a deep connection to their thoughts when they pack a pipe full of their favorite tobacco, and sit back with a nice smoke. Still others enjoy their favorite artist playing music in the background, or a pen and paper to follow their thoughts in written word as they walk through them. If these activities, or any others, are helpful for you, by all means implement them into your time!
Take with you what you learned
As you reflect on your life, your choices, and your relationships, you may be surprised how much insight and perspective you gain. Do not let those learnings be forgotten when your time is over! Do what you must to ensure you take those things with you and that you take the necessary steps to enact helpful change in the areas that you identify it is needed. Perhaps you find this is best done by journaling your questions and responses as you go, or after the fact. Or maybe it’s best for you to discuss your time later that week with your mentor or a close friend. Whatever the case may be, it is important to ensure that you are bearing the fruit from your time of self-reflection.
All of this sounds wonderful and ideal, I know. I’m sure many of you would love some time to yourself but have simply not found the opportunity to take it. I’m not trying to naively paint a picture that is unachievable. I understand the realities of our lives. Kids have to get to practice, your marriage must be tended to and cared for, the deliverables at work simply will not turn themselves in at your convenience.
But my challenge to you today, gentlemen, is not to suddenly implement a lifestyle that affords you hours and hours per week of uninterrupted time alone. That simply is not feasible for most. But I will challenge you to take steps in a direction that will lead you towards more than you are likely allowing today. Even seemingly small choices will ultimately result in substantial changes in the way you think about the importance of that time. If you lay the groundwork faithfully, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised with how reachable this goal is.
If you are able to implement any of these suggestions or are able to take steps towards giving yourself more room for thoughtful reflection, by all means let us know! We’d love your hear your comments below about how you may have been impacted by that time, and what you are doing that has helped you take those steps!
Now…gentlemen… go and set examples of courage and humility as you step into the vulnerability of loneliness. Live in contrast to the notion that we must fill our time for us to be “full”. Live in a way that tells a different story; of men who are making time to live in stillness, and leaving legacies that impact greater because of it.