March 6, 2016

The Difference between Being Alone & Being Lonely.

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I have gone large amounts of time of being by myself, especially while traveling, yet in those moments it has never felt appropriate to say I feel alone.

I don’t feel alone when I am by myself because there is life all around me, and I feel connected to it on a number of levels.

I don’t feel alone because there are trees, flowers, animals, stars, and the moon.

Most importantly, I have myself—I love feeling my life, and I feel connected with it in a way that leaves me open to feeling how connected I am to the larger universe; I’ve always felt that somehow every individual thing echoes the existence of every other thing within it.

Unfortunately, language is not rich enough to make a distinction between being and feeling completely alone and being simply without others around. For me it doesn’t seem appropriate to use the word “alone” simply to designate the presence or absence of other people. Otherwise, how could I explain the fact that the times I have felt most alone in my life were not the times I spent in the woods by myself nor the times I spent in Iraq late at night in the middle of the desert—how could I explain that, instead, it has been the times amidst certain social situations where the vibes, energies, and attitudes of those around me made it difficult for me to enjoy my own sense of aliveness?

It’s interesting how there are plenty of words to describe being alone, but no direct equivalent when it comes to the opposite. If one feels alone one can say, “I feel deserted, abandoned, lonely, solo, by myself.” But if one is by his or herself but does not feel alone, what can one say? One can’t say, “I’m together,” because that’s the opposite of “alone.” Likewise, it seems improper to say “I’m with someone,” despite the fact that one can feel he or she is not alone even when no other person is around. Perhaps it’s not improper to say, “I’m with myself?”

My friend was talking about his time on a silent retreat where there was no noise, talk, or communication for three days. He said that when he told people about it their reactions were often, “I could never do that. I could never be by myself like that,” saying such things as if their selves were foreigners or strangers—something that can actually be true depending on how much one tries to know his or her self, and how connected they feel to it.

Oddly enough, the times I have felt the least alone are times when I am wholly with myself, with my life and all the feelings, thoughts and perceptions associated with it.

In regards to people, the most fulfilling times are when I feel so close and connected that there can be lulls in conversation and no feelings of discomfort; times where I can sit with someone and not feel the need to speak; where we can have stretches of time when we are both simply present in the moment.

None of this is meant to diminish the value and importance of relationships and social interactions; I certainly cherish them in my life. But relationships shouldn’t be used as a way to escape from one’s self, which is what many relationships and friendships often involve. Relationships should not be founded on co-dependency. And although humans are undeniably social beings, no relationship with other people can replace the relationship one has with his or her self.


Author: Mark Zimmermann

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Angel Monsanto III at Unsplash 

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