“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.” ~ Paul Tillich
It’s an arctic cold February afternoon in Damascus, a tiny town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. As I gaze upon the Winter grey outside my window, the naked scene reminds me of loneliness.
As billowing wispy snowflakes flit riotously through the gnarled branches of an old Maple tree, it strikes me that there is a dance-like interplay to what we experience as loneliness throughout our lives.
It can be existentially searing in its intensity, and an endearing Sadhu of wisdom in moments of solitude.
The question is: how do we navigate the ins and outs of loneliness as they manifest, sometimes unexpectedly, in our lives?
I’ll return to this in a bit; but first let’s anchor this emotional state in a solid definition.
Developing a psycho-sociological view in his essay, Research on Social Support, Loneliness and Social Isolation: Towards an Integrated View of Personality, the psychologist, KS Rook, defines loneliness as:
“an enduring condition of an emotional state that arises when a person feels estranged from, is misunderstood or rejected by, and/or lacks appropriate social partners for a desired activity, particularly activities that provide a sense of social integration and opportunities for emotional intimacy.”
As a general definition of loneliness, this one is probably as good as any. I like it. But, for me, it lacks Spirit.
There is a spiritual dimension to loneliness because we are essentially spiritual beings inhabiting bodies on a linear physical safari.
Loneliness is one of the fundamental human emotions we will experience along the way. The key is to learn and grow from the experience.
The Ins of loneliness:
I believe there are two sides to the “Ins” of loneliness—the bright side and the shadow side.
The bright side has to do with healthy, balanced and necessary self-reflection. Regardless of temperament and personality, everyone needs time alone, a sacred space somewhere in the day to spiritually recharge and heal. Or if not in the day, then at least somewhere over the week. It can be a form of meditation, a walk on the beach, or a gadget-less free afternoon in the corner coffee shop, just to ponder and reconnect with the spiritual essence of who we are. Failure to do this not only depletes our energy and creativity, but it leaves us so enslaved to our digital devices and pixilated reality that we forget there is a real, natural world beyond our screens and monitors.
The shadow side of the “Ins” of loneliness has to do with overindulging alone time. I’m an introvert and a very contemplative person. Therefore, like all introverts, alone time and solitude are not only pleasant—they generate the oxygen that keeps us physically, morally, emotionally and spiritually breathing. But there comes a time when the oxygen mask needs to be removed or we can tailspin into becoming unhealthy—even sociopathic—recluses.
As a human species we are innately communal and need the lifeblood warmth, energy, companionship and provocation of others to sustain and challenge us. Deprived of such for long periods of time, we shrivel and die.
The Outs of Loneliness:
Like the “Ins” of this existential state, the “Outs” too have their bright and shadow sides.
When loneliness overwhelms, our response tends to be a healthy, integrated reaching out for connection, or an unhealthy, restless, compulsive search for someone or something to fill the void that can never be filled.
Socializing with friends, or quality time with an intimate companion, spiritual director or mentor can exemplify the former; over-extension of self at work, excessive bar time or shopping binges can exemplify the latter. We know we need to be with others, but in its fragmentary state our need often morphs into or masks neediness. We can’t bear to be alone.
Noise, busyness, restlessness, constant stimulation and distraction are the hallmarks of the urbanized and socially isolated world we have created for ourselves. No, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram won’t cut it. We need nourishing, meaningful and compassion-filled companionship in our lives.
More importantly, we need to recognize our moments of existential loneliness and anguish for what they are: the progeny of a disintegrated human community that has technologically stripped us of our capacity to be alone; or the unavoidable but necessary moments of spiritual centering and growth that, if we let them in, will make all the difference in the world.
A solitary red cardinal has just alighted on one of the Maple tree’s sinewy limbs. It pokes around the snow-dusted branches for a bit and then takes off. And I’m alone again.
As I stare into the coiling puffs of arctic air gusting across the yard, I wonder: who or what will surprise me next in my solitary reverie?
Author: Gerard Murphy
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Cia de Foto/Flickr