I recently had a conversation with a friend about being alone and the struggles that this can bring. It’s a concept I’ve had to work through a couple of times in my life, and I think it’s one that is never fully put to bed for many of us.
I’ve learned that there is a distinct difference between loneliness and solitude. We experience loneliness when we feel completely and utterly alone. We might be in a crowd of people at Disneyland, but within, we feel like no one else bothers to see us. We might feel like we don’t matter, or that no one cares. Loneliness is often something we strive to avoid. We might plan nights out with friends or acquaintances, dinners with family, or binge watch the latest Netflix phenomenon with the intention of trying to erase feelings of loneliness.
Solitude is a much different experience. Solitude occurs when we embrace the silence and the experience of being by ourselves. Introverts may refer to it as their time to recharge, when they are simply present with themselves. Solitude can take on a number of forms- it might be meditation, a solo walk on the beach, enjoying a cup of tea at a coffee shop with a good book, working on a new chord on the guitar, and so on.
Solitude is one of many ways in which we can learn about ourselves. In a world full of chaos, news feeds, social media, and busyness, it can be easy not to let ourselves just be. As someone who is an internal processor (though I recognize not everyone works this way), I am very aware that I need solitude to process my thoughts, emotions, and whatever may be bothering me. Oftentimes I can recognize that I feel off in some way, and it isn’t until I retreat from the world that I figure out why and consequently, what to do about it.
I distinctly remember the first time I felt prolonged experiences of loneliness. I was a freshman in college, living in the dorms, and I didn’t know a single person who went to my school. My adjustment period was pretty rough, and it didn’t help that I had a tenuous family situation at the time. I tried all the right things- joining clubs, intramural teams (Ultimate Frisbee? Why not?), Greek life, choir, and more. I figured the only way to meet people was to put myself out there, so by golly, I did. And yet, nothing seemed to help. I struggled a lot, and the counselor I was seeing told me I had a mild case of depression, which naturally scared me even more. I didn’t want to be depressed! I wanted to have friends! To have fun! I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the “college experience” I kept hearing about.
I finally started having conversations with one of the campus ministers. He was a great guy who had seen it all and knew when to let me talk and when to nudge the conversation in a certain direction. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but I remember that I finally felt heard and my experience was normalized for the first time. Perhaps most importantly, he lent me a book, The Restless Heart by Ronald Rolheiser. In the book, Rolheiser talks about the different between solitude and loneliness and how we can use that struggle to grow in our spiritual life. To a seventeen year-old who was desperately searching for a way to both understand what I was feeling and figure out what to do about it, this book was worth more than gold, and it helped me to move forward in my college career.
There have certainly been other periods in my life when I’ve experienced intense loneliness. Teaching in rural North Carolina comes to mind, as does moving across the country away from many of my closest friends. There have been times when I’ve stopped talking about my experiences of loneliness to close friends because I felt like that was all I talked about and I was tired of beating the same drum over and over. None of these experiences have been fun in any way. In fact, they were pretty terrible. There have been some periods in my life that I think I kept Kleenex in business single-handedly. And yet, I wouldn’t be who I am today without them, and I would have missed out on so many important lessons that came from working through that pain.
I’ve learned that when shit hits the fan and you think there is no one else left on your team, you can choose to let God in or shut the door in his face. He loves to use the silence as his conduit, but it takes a willing listener to hear him.
I’ve learned that it’s in the times when we feel most alone that we find out who our truest friends are.
I’ve learned that from the forges of life can come true beauty and brilliance.
I’ve learned that no matter how bad it can get and how alone I might feel, after each sunset comes a new sunrise, ripe with the promise of a new day and new adventures to be had.
As I write this, I’m laying in the grass at a park that reminds me of my home in North Carolina, taking in the sunlight as the sun drops lower and lower in the sky. Four months ago, the very act of being here by myself in a city that felt so foreign, drab, and unwelcoming would have terrified me. And yet today, I’m basking in this time to myself. This opportunity to think through something that’s been in the back of my mind all day. This chance to pause, breathe, and hear God’s voice in the silence.
Perspective is everything.