Loneliness vs Solitude

It is a strange feeling for many of us as we come out of isolation after several weeks. Australia has been blessed in many ways when we compare ourselves to other countries around the world. It is surprising that restrictions are being eased so soon, schools are phasing back to normal, more people are able to head back to work and we can even begin to visit friends and family members in their homes.

Other countries have been in a long and lonely isolation for months now and the side effects for individuals in those countries are starting to be recognised.

Years ago my wife and I went to Tasmania on a holiday. We visited the historic site of Port Arthur. This was a convict prison site that held some of the worst criminals. It was also the first prison that employed isolation as a method of punishment.

The results were horrible.

The prison was set up so that the convicts would never see each other. Prisoners had tiny cells with no windows that lined up with other cells. Even the chapel was designed to isolate each other. Convicts would stand in narrow chambers with small dividers either side of them so that they could see the preacher but could not see the person standing next to them.

The stories that came out of Port Arthur were horrific. The convicts were driven to despair, some lost their minds and it was largely to do with the isolation and loneliness.

Port Arthur Separate Prison

The results of long term loneliness are not good. It is a normal human trait to connect with others. While we have been isolating as a nation we have often found ourselves craving company and distraction. We find ourselves doing anything to avoid loneliness.

So why is it that sometimes being alone is also something we can crave?

I know that if I don’t take some time out regularly, just to be on my own, I find myself feeling burned out, stressed or I even get snappy at the people I care most about.

I have been reading a lot of material from Glen Gerreyn, the founder of The Hopeful Institute over the past couple of months. In his book entitled ‘Oxygen: 102 Doses of Inspiration’ he compared loneliness with solitude. I think there is an important difference that we need to understand as we begin to phase out of isolation.

Glen puts it like this:

“With our appetite for action and our desire to stay current, be relevant and be seen, we have disregarded one of life’s great treasures, solitude. Instead, the concept of solitude has acquired its own nicknames; ‘Nigel No Friends’ or ‘Larry Loner’ (apologies to all the Nigels and Larrys out there). The thought of not having anything to do on a Saturday night can crush our self-esteem.

But let me challenge you to flip the coin for a moment and to rename ‘solitude.’ Let’s call it ‘peace’ or ‘stillness’ and let’s accept it as ESSENTIAL.

Only in seclusion can we answer the most searching questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I capable of? So the next time you find yourself alone don’t be afraid. Don’t pick up the phone or turn on your computer for distraction. Use the time constructively to work on You! If you can’t enjoy your own company, then you will never be a joy in the company of others.”

I love what Glen says on this topic but I will take it a step further. Solitude can also be a place when you connect more with God – who I think has a better chance of helping us answer those deep questions when we remove distractions, get alone, think, read and pray.

So let me encourage you with a few things as we begin to come out of social isolation:

  1. You may have felt an increased sense of loneliness over the past couple of months. Knowing how that feels, now when you see a classmate with no one to talk to at lunch time, how about you ask them to join your group. Be proactive to help remove loneliness from other’s lives.
  2. Practice solitude regularly. For me, that looks like going fishing on my own, standing on the beach, thinking and talking to God. What might it look like for you? I think we should all build some time into our week for solitude, removing distractions and being OK to just be by ourselves.
  3. If you’re not sure what to think about when you are alone, try Glen’s four questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What am I capable of?

I love the way Paul Tillich, German-American Theologian puts it:

“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.”

Let’s not rush back from isolation and fill our lives up with busyness. Let’s keep some alone time in our lives.