“Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone and 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
They say writing is therapy. It has taken me some time to appreciate the truth of that. Recent suicides by famous people who on the outside look to have everything that could make a person happy opened a window into loneliness and its role in my life.
As I write, I am alone. The solitude sort of aloneness that I need for my mental health. My partner is off on a camping trip and I stayed home with dogs and my own schedule.
I’ve been journaling this week about the meaning and roll of loneliness in human existence. I’ve also shared my thoughts with those in my weekly orbit of conversations. These people ranged from those who live alone by choice, those who live alone due to the death of a loved one, and those who are surrounded by people and still feel a deep loneliness.
In the quiet of morning, memories come back to me of times when loneliness defined my life. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a deep psychoanalysis, but this is a subject we need to talk about, not hide away in shame. The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain illustrate this.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. Every 2-3 years, and I wasn’t fast, or good at making friends when we got to a new house. My sister excels in this, and I’m jealous of that ability. So much of my childhood was playing alone, which I became very adept at, to the point of pride. I don’t need friends I told myself. As hard as it is to say, that attitude stuck with me well into my 50s.
In high school I dreamed of becoming a hermit, living in the mountains, off the land, and far from human contact. This was the era of Euell Gibbons and his wild foods movement. I figured I could handle it. I could eat trees and not have to kill anything. Plus, there was the advantage of not having to make any friends – since there would be none to be had. In hindsight it reflected my lack of relationships. I wanted to hide.
I got involved in school and work, joined groups, often took leadership positions, yet in all those years there isn’t one person I’d call the type of friend I keep touch with. I had a best friend in high school (at personal expense to my dad’s career he kept us in the same high school for 4 years) and a best friend in college. Those two are still friends. The rest turned out to be acquaintances. They didn’t fill the hole I felt inside.
Like a lot of people, I was lonely in plain sight of folks to connect with. Psychologists believe that over 40% of adults report feeling lonely despite unprecedented technologies to connect people, and loneliness has grown to be considered a public health crisis.
Two of my friends have developed the ability to convert loneliness into solitude, one through a long list of satisfying activities and the other through meditation. Learning that inspired me to rise early this morning and combine meditation and yoga before beginning my day. This is important to me because loneliness can trigger serious health complications like a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.
In looking at quotes about loneliness I came across this one that seemed to sum things up.
The eternal quest of the individual human being is to shatter his loneliness – Norman Cousins.
I wish you all the best in your personal battles with this many-armed beast.
Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 – October 22, 1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.
 Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, Vice-Admiral Vivek Murthy, September 2017 https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic
 Vice-Admiral Vivek Murthy, Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, September 2017 https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic