When I think about these two states of being – loneliness and solitude – they have such different connotations. And yet the border between them is porous. If we are lonely, can we just decide that we can cross over into solitude? It seems a bit like the old fairy-tale about spinning straw into gold.
Loneliness has been called the new epidemic. The Surgeon General of the United States has written a book about it. Magazine articles about it abound. It has been linked to stress, depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, impaired cognitive functioning, decreased creativity and lower self-esteem.
A very bad thing, this loneliness. The obvious solution of taking steps to increase our social engagement is clearly positive, especially after the isolation of the pandemic. Joining clubs, phoning old friends, striking up conversations on elevators – all good.
But some loneliness is unavoidable. The existentialists draw our attention to the fact that on one level, basically, we are all alone. We can be alone in a crowd as well as in our bed. So, if loneliness is in some way inevitable, what can we do?
Well, let’s consider the case for solitude. Unlike loneliness, solitude is a state we can choose for ourselves; it’s a deliberate choice – to be alone and to savour one’s own company. It can be healing. Animals, when they are hurt, prefer to recover on their own; and we, too, are animals according to basic biology.
Sometimes we need to shut out the noise of the outer world to let our shattered nerves recover, to allow our body and our mind to take care of us by creating the quiet space for them to do so.
We have an inner ‘voice’ that represents our instinctive knowledge, and we need peace to be able to hear it. It is this voice that conveys our intuition and our creativity. This is the voice that can help us to make good decisions, to know which direction to turn in.
This voice can be a good companion if we can honour it and not seek to silence it by busying ourselves with distractions. It can deepen our experience of life even when we are experiencing sorrow. But the catch is that we must actually choose to hear it – we must make an intentional decision to change our state of being. The effects of loneliness, such as anxiety and self-pity, can make that more difficult.
To turn loneliness into solitude, we need to get hold of that part of ourselves that makes choices. It can be as simple as asking ourselves what we really enjoy when we’re alone. Is there music that soothes our soul? Can we make a special meal for ourselves? To pause, and ask how we actually want to live, can all by itself yield results. Often, in our loneliness, we are just following habit without connecting to what we are actually feeling.
One easy way to start is to become aware of our breathing. Our breath is sustaining us all the time whether we are aware of it or not. We can take a few moments just to appreciate our breathing; for example, sensing the flow of air in and out of our nostrils. This can settle us into ourselves and help us to experience our own presence.
We can use our senses. What are we seeing in this moment? What are the sounds we are hearing? What is our body touching? Our senses are always with us, and connect us with the present, which we are often unaware of as we focus on the past or the future.
As we do this, we are creating an opening into the world of solitude. We can think of it as a landscape to explore, as a way of turning what may be imposed on us, loneliness, into a state of chosen contemplation, solitude.
Do you feel lonely and anxious because of it? How much would you say loneliness affects your daily life? What would it take for you to turn loneliness into solitude? Would this change bring you inner peace?