Are you feeling lonely?
Or are you enjoying solitude?
Interesting that a situation can be both for some of us, especially as we grow older and friends or family members move away, or die, leaving us to feel the loss of their companionship and support.
Yet we can feel alone without feeling lonely. And we can definitely feel very lonely even in the midst of a crowd.
Theologian, professor and thinker Paul Tillich spent a lot of time pondering what it means to be alone and/or lonely.
In “The Eternal Now”, he writes: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone…”
Tillich goes on to discuss the many ways in which solitude can serve our souls. “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude…”We can speak without voice to the trees and the clouds and the waves of the sea…. Solitude can also be found in the reading of poetry, in listening to music, in looking at pictures, and in sincere thoughtfulness. We are alone…but we are not lonely. Solitude protects us without isolating us. But life call us back to its empty talk and the unavoidable demands of daily routine….”
Does “life call us back,” or is it that the world we have created for ourselves won’t let us be silent for a moment, much less alone? Cell phones. Texting. Emails. Meet-up groups. Online dating. Conference calls. Even church. While all can enhance our lives, are they sometimes robbing us of the solitude we each need to keep our balance?
And what about the inventors, artists, writers, poets, and others who are driven to creative expression? Is this even possible without time alone…and is time alone even possible?
Tillich says, “You cannot become or remain creative without solitude. One hour of conscious solitude will enrich your creativity far more than hours of trying to learn the creative process.”
True, some do very well bouncing ideas and concepts off others in a group. But for me, and for many of the creative people I’ve worked with, spending some time alone to let the tiny nuggets of ideas float to the top has always been much more productive. How else can we hear what our minds and hearts are trying to tell us?
Some people are extroverts. And some are introverts…people who, according to Psychology Today, engage the world in fundamentally different ways. Social engagements can drain them, while quiet time gives them an energy boost. In fact, MRI studies have shown that people who are considered loners actually experience more blood flow in certain areas of their brains during social situations, which can be exhausting.
At the age of 82, Psychologist Carl Jung wrote in a letter these words: “Solitude is for me a fount of healing which makes my life worth living. Talking is often torment for me, and I need many days of silence to recover from the futility of words….”
Still, it’s important to remember that loneliness—not solitude—can be bad for our health. It can keep us from sleeping. Increase our risk for dementia. And even increase the risk of early death. So what to do? You can’t just build a friend in the basement.
But you can take some simple steps to help you feel better and maybe make it easier to make new connections.
Take a walk. Exercise. Learn tai chi. Travel with a tour group. Attend an outdoor concert. Strike up a conversation with someone in a coffee shop. Sign up for a volunteer event. Get a pet—trust me, you won’t be lonely long.
Whether you’re feeling lonely at the moment, or enjoying a quiet break from the crowd, balance is always the key. As boomers and beyond, we know we have to be a part of the world, but we also know we must feed our souls. As Hobson said to Arthur, “Yes, bathing is a lonely business.” But it’s one we must do every day.
“Let us dare to have solitude—to face the eternal, to find others, to see ourselves.”