As we prepare to spend the festive period surrounded by family and friends and immersed in laughter and love, it is a good time to reflect on the loneliness that can arise in our relatives’ absence. Technology, in connecting us closer to each other and simultaneously pushing us further apart, is a key factor in our increasing sense of isolation. The solution, argues Dr. Lomas, lies in turning our unwanted loneliness into cherished solitude. This, he says, is where we ultimately find our strength.
It could be said that we are more connected than ever. Advances in technology, especially the Internet and the mobile phone, mean that a world of people is now just a click or a call away. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we feel bonded, supported, nurtured. Indeed, just as these globalising technologies are bringing people together, they are flinging us apart. Gone are the days when most of us grew up and grew old in one place, surrounded by a reliable network of family and friends. Now we migrate from city to city, or even country to country, in search of work, love, safety or adventure; and there is an increasing tendency to keep on moving, with the result that we never feel truly settled. Families and friendship networks become scattered and stretched, held together by no more than the ephemeral strands of the World Wide Web. Moreover, although we can connect to our loved ones via the modern miracles of technology, many of our hours are still spent in lonely isolation as we commute, eat, work or live alone.
Millions of us lead atomised, individual lives, even – or perhaps especially – if we live in crowded urban conurbations. As a result, loneliness has become one of the banes of the twenty- first century. And yet, while all of us would say that we hate to feel lonely, we would also admit that we sometimes long to be alone. The extent and shape of this need for isolation can vary widely, of course. At the farthest extreme, an ascetic like Bodhidharma may wish to spend years alone in a cave. Meanwhile, a gregarious extrovert may require only the occasional minute or two of peace and quiet to regroup and gather his energy. Either way, we all need at least some time and space away from our burdens of social responsibility, from having to present our best face to the crowd. We need those oases of calm when we can retreat into ourselves and find some peace away from the hustle and bustle of conversation, the give and take of interaction. This doesn’t necessarily involve withdrawing physically. Sometimes, aloneness can be achieved simply by finding the space to be with your thoughts. Indeed, those who care for us can remain close by, present in a loving way, while still granting this type of aloneness. Think of your partner holding you close at the end of a hard day, without asking for explanations or cajoling you to talk through your problems. In such situations we feel both cared for and alone. There is a term for this much- desired form of aloneness: solitude.
This differs greatly from loneliness. Solitude is aloneness that is both sought and cherished, while loneliness is aloneness that is resented or feared. As the theologian Paul Tillich said, ‘Language 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’.1 Yet, these two states are not worlds apart from each other. Rather, at some point, solitude silently crosses a dark, imperceptible boundary and becomes loneliness. For our ascetic hermit, although the first year away from society might seem like bliss, over the next few months he might start to feel the cold touch of loneliness. On the other hand, the life and soul of the party might crave company after just ten minutes of isolation. Whatever our level of sociability, though, whatever our ‘limit’, if we exceed it, we suffer the pain of loneliness.
Intriguingly, though, this limit is not set in stone for any of us – it shifts, depending on circumstances. For instance, you might be walking alone through a park and suffer a sudden pang of loneliness. Then, the very next moment, a ray of Sunshine might flicker onto your face just as a bird sings and you catch the scent of roses in the air. Suddenly, you may feel altogether more hopeful about life and more at peace as your loneliness transforms into solitude.
Our main task is to learn how to do just that: banish the pain of loneliness and turn it into the grace of solitude.
Tillich, P. (1963). The Eternal Now. New York: Scribner. Cited in Lionberger, J. (2007). Renewal in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World. Woodstock, Vermont: SkyLight Paths Publishing, at p. 121.
This article is extracted from Dr. Tim Lomas’s The Positive Power of Negative Emotions: How Harnessing Your Darker Feelings Can Help You See A Brighter Dawn.