Lessons in solitude from Jane Austen

. . . It required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.” — From Persuasion by Jane Austen.

One of the things I have noticed and come to appreciate about some of Jane Austen’s best-known characters is their habit of taking time alone to think about things. After unsettling encounters with other people, intriguing letters, and jarring experiences, they recognize the need for personal space to sort out their feelings and thoughts.P1010295

Some of them never discuss these matters with another soul – especially when bound by a promise of confidence – but in the course of “solitude and reflection” they review the details and determine how they will respond, what they will convey to others by their behavior, and the significance of what has been said or done.

While re-reading a few of my favorite Austen novels this winter, it has struck me that this practice might be useful in a world that urges us to tell all – and to do so now. What if, instead of rushing to the phone or computer to announce anything and everything, we applied a bit of solitude and reflection to the matters at hand?

When Austen’s characters do that, they benefit in bounds. In Pride and Prejudice, no one was closer to Elizabeth Bennet than her beloved sister, Jane. But though she wishes Jane were with her, she is alone when she receives Mr. Darcy’s letter after refusing his offer of marriage. Left to read and ponder his words on her own, Elizabeth realizes that she was wrong in her prejudice against the man she rejected. She may have reached the same conclusion in an email exchange or conversation with Jane, but the point is that something happened in her silent reflection. Without another’s voice or opinion to soothe or advise, she came face-to-face with herself.

Reflection like that takes time – time that stretches out on long walks or in extended periods of sitting without a phone to tap or earbuds to adjust. It is found in the “be still” admonition of the Bible that ends with “and know that I am God,” suggesting there is something or Someone we cannot know unless and until we are still and removed from human interaction.

With so many ready ways to contact others in our technologically rich society, it can be difficult to resist the impulse to reach for a communications device when we are upset, troubled, or confused. And even if we pause to reflect alone, we may grow impatienIMG_1702t and feel like we are wasting time when an answer, resolution, or insight doesn’t emerge as quickly as we would like.

Sometimes, we have to trust in the process to do its work, and provide us with healing, clarity, or just a time of rest that gives us the strength to carry on.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Margaret Hale sits “long hours upon the beach” after a series of traumas that include the loss of a dear friend and both her parents. Those who pass by wonder what she finds to look at and her family worries about her silence at dinner. Yet, Gaskell tells us, her time by the sea helped her see things in perspective. “She was soothed without knowing how or why.”

When we pause to sit, whether before an altar or by the water, or take a long walk without the filter of another’s thoughts, things have a way of putting themselves right, if only we can be still enough to wait.