Fortress of solitude


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson delves into the concept of discovering comfort in one’s own company and discusses how to transform a personal “fortress of solitude” into a source of strength and resilience.

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Like a lot of kids, when I was really young, I liked to dress up as different superheroes. My mom even sewed me capes to go with different superhero t-shirts: a blue one for Batman, yellow for Robin. But far and away my favorite was Superman.

Here’s how obsessed I was with Superman: In kindergarten I would wear my costume under my clothes and put on fake glasses, just like Clark Kent, and look for phone booths to change in. And if you don’t know what a phone booth is — ask your parents.

Besides being able to fly and melt steel with my heat vision, one of the things I imagined about being Superman was having my own “fortress of solitude.”

You see, Superman has a secret ice crystal palace somewhere near the North Pole that serves as a reminder of his home planet, Krypton. It’s his refuge from the hustle and bustle of Metropolis and the world.

We can analyze my childhood obsession with Superman all day (and yes, the topic has come up in therapy), but for today, I want to focus particularly on the aspect of solitude.

Superman, of course, is basically all-powerful (just beware of kryptonite). He can do almost whatever he wants to do. Which is…pretty incredible.

But at the time time, Superman might also be profoundly lonely: He’s the only survivor from his planet; though he looks like every other human being, he really isn’t one. Who could possibly relate to his experience?

Hence, perhaps, the need for a fortress of solitude: a place for him to go and reconnect with his home world, his own people. (Since the Kryptonians were an advanced society, the facility includes interactive holographic recordings his mother and father made for him. Pretty cool.)

I think this line between loneliness and solitude is a really important one. What’s the difference? In a recent book called “Together,” the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, writes about the epidemic of loneliness we seem to be experiencing as a society.

Loneliness is associated with an alarmingly wide range of negative health outcomes — not only psychological ones, but physical too. As God says after creating the first human being, “It’s not good for a person to be alone.” No kidding.

But Dr. Murthy makes an important distinction between loneliness and solitude. We can be physically alone and not feel lonely. He writes a beautiful paragraph about solitude, and I want to quote it in full to you:

“Solitude can feel a bit daunting, even scary, since it allows both positive and negative thoughts and emotions to surface. The space where we confront our demons is not always a space we enter willingly. But it’s in the grappling that we work through issues, gain clarity about our feelings, and build comfort with ourselves. Developing comfort with solitude is an essential part of strengthening our connection to ourselves and by extension enabling our connection with others. Solitude, paradoxically, protects against loneliness.”

Why am I so interested in loneliness and solitude right now? The Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, contains one of the great stories about the topic.

You’ll recall that last week we talked about young Jacob who fled his twin brother Esau and set out alone to make a life for himself. Now, many years later and with four wives, thirteen children, and a huge flock of animals, he’s making his way back to his homeland.

En route, he discovers that Esau is approaching him with an army. Jacob fears for his life and that of his family, and the night before his encounter he makes extensive preparations. 

As the dawn is about to break, the Torah says that Jacob is left alone. And during this aloneness, he wrestles with a mysterious creature, one that Jewish tradition teaches was an angel.

As the sun comes up, the angel gives Jacob a new name, Israel, saying: “You have wrestled with God and with people, and you have proved able.”

I understand this story to teach that solitude — the kind of solitude Dr. Murthy writes about, the solitude of confronting our demons, grappling and working through issues, gaining clarity, building comfort with ourselves — that kind of solitude is at the bedrock of what it means to be Jewish.

The inner work of self-awareness — whether through prayer or Torah study or psychology (a field that Jews have pioneered ever since Sigmund Freud) — this inner work is foundational to our people and our tradition.

One way we might think about the difference between loneliness and solitude is that in solitude, we befriend ourselves. We learn to be comfortable in our own company. We learn to love ourselves. 

So here’s a practice you can try. It’s based on the work of Dr. Kristin Neff, who teaches at the University of Texas.

To do it, set aside a few minutes when you can be quiet and alone, in your own fortress of solitude. And if it helps, feel free to wear your Superman cape.

If you like, you can do this with your eyes closed, taking a few good deep breaths to calm yourself and allow your body to arrive.

The practice is in four parts.

When you’re ready, you can do the first part. Think about a time when a close friend might have felt down about themselves or was really struggling. When you’re at your best, how would you want to respond? Think about what you might do with your words, your tone, your body. Notice how that feels.

Next, think about a time when you might feel bad about yourself or when you’re really struggling. How do you respond to yourself? What words do you say to yourself? What’s your tone? What does your body feel like? 

Third, think about these two together. Is there a difference in how you respond to your friend versus yourself? If so, why do you think that might be? Why might you treat yourself differently than you treat others? If not, what is it that helps you treat yourself the same way you treat others?

Finally, imagine for yourself how things might change if you responded to yourself the way you respond to a close friend who’s suffering. What might that feel like? What might it be like to speak to yourself that way? To give yourself a hug?

Take another good, deep breath. And when you’re ready, open your eyes. You might even want to write down some observations from your practice.

It turns out I’m not Superman, and neither are you. But as our ancestor Jacob shows us, all of us need our fortress of solitude. And the good news is, we don’t need to go to the North Pole to find it. It’s right here in our minds and hearts.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you. 

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