[Religion News Service, January 7, 1997]
In a north Florida city, just off the interstate, stands a gas station that at first appears routine. But as I came around last week to pump a tankful for my holiday trip home, I noticed a sign posted next to the credit‑card slot.
The wording was oddly formal. "We hope your fueling experience will be enhanced by Jacksonville’s first FAST PAY television gas pumps."
I had no idea what this meant, and found the whole concept of a "fueling experience" to be weighty in itself. But as the pump clicked on and gas began to flow, a thin electronic voice began to emerge from the machine.
"Nytol will help you get your Zs!" it proclaimed cheerily. A couple of other commercial jingles followed, then I realized that there was a tiny TV screen embedded in the pump.
It measured about four inches square, and bore an image nearly invisible in the afternoon glare. After the circus parade of commercials had passed by the real show began: CNN Headline News. I got to hear a couple of top news items before it was abruptly cut off by the end of the fuel transaction. If I’d wanted to find out what happened next I suppose I’d have had to seize someone else’s car and keep pumping.
I’m sure whoever arranged this means well, but I resent it. Truth is, I don’t want an enhanced "fueling experience." I want to be left alone. I like silence from time to time (and right before getting into a car with three teen‑agers for a 10‑hour trip is one of those times).
But our culture is awash in a sea of information, hungry for input, desperate to be distracted. Silence threatens. Solitude is unfamiliar, even a to be feared.
In my last column I examined a letter from a man who confessed that his arrogant refusal to yield in his principles and personal style had left him "jobless, loveless, lifeless and alone." A friend responded with an e‑mail noting that, tragic as this story was, the other extreme can be damaging as well. There can be such a thing as too much togetherness.
"I completely understand your premise," he wrote, "yet I would hope that people realize that it’s also OK to spend time ‑‑ even lots of time ‑‑ alone.
"One of the most satisfying moments in my life was when I realized that loneliness and solitude were not interchangeable terms. I am as gregarious and social as befits my nature, but I also have discovered the gift of solitude. I seek it regularly for its therapeutic value. It is a separate peace just as rewarding as the company of friends."
Indeed, solitude was once seen as an indispensable aid to spiritual growth. Religious orders were founded with the aim of giving men and women an opportunity to live in silence. Without such intentionality, the iron rod of urgency tends to drive a person from need to need, since problems fill whatever space is available. The only available modern way to flee the pondering of worries and tackling of tasks is the numbing effect of input: entertainment, purchases, stimulation, gluttony, and the wheedling thread of constant news assaulting even at the gas pump.
We fear solitude, though many have cited it as an indispensable companion on the pathway to knowledge of God. Solitude may initially usher in a flood of panic and restlessness, but that is likely to be the foamy cap of a wave whose deeper level is self‑ examination, and ultimately repentance. It is in confronting our sense of disappointment and failure that we begin to see our need. Not just a need for a fuzzy God of comfort, but a God of holiness who can help us repent, turn, and walk in his ways.
Solitude is restorative and illuminating, but it’s not readily available. No one can patent or package it, so it’s hard to market. Saturating entertainment is easier to come by, even at a gas station.
Though my recent "fueling experience" was intrusive, unwelcome and far from enhanced, I’m sure the owners meant well. They even supposed it to be compatible with spiritual engagement. I can tell, because when the little receipt chugged out of the machine it bore this concluding message: "Thank you for your business. God bless you."