From Loneliness to Solitude

Here in the North we know a thing or two about loneliness. There are few people, long distances and little touching. Teenage angst, workaholic spouses, divorce, unemployment... And it's not just the Nordics. Loneliness is everywhere, and often linked to being unwilling to compromise. Rebels can find themselves alone with their back to the wall. 

Loneliness is also a familiar companion to anyone on the road of the spirit. It's felt especially by those young people who are aware of something beyond the visible world: “I feel like an outsider at parties – I mean, who cares about clothes and boys? If I try to talk about what I see, everyone gets really uncomfortable. They don’t have a clue.” Take hope: the longer you travel on the road, the more like-minded people you will meet, the less dependent you will be on others, and the more you begin to appreciate all the people you meet, regardless of whether they “have a clue” or not.

Loneliness can seem worse when you are surrounded by others, in a city or in a dysfunctional marriage. Once we are out in the countryside or have broken free in other ways, things begin to open up. Being alone makes room for a deeper experience of non-human contacts: the creative process, animals, nature. We can hear our inner voice and that of the universe. It is no coincidence that hermits of all religions have sought the silence of the desert to hear God and see the path to Him. Great masterpieces of art have been created in loneliness, and have built a route to the hearts of others.

There are many ways we can begin to transform humiliating, soul-devouring loneliness into a proud and fruitful solitude. Sometimes movement is the key: going out among people, observing them, feeling the energy of the city envelop us, letting the body take its place among other bodies. Or we can move even further: travel, engage with the landscape, with people who never were meant to be our own, but who are human, like we are. It's good to find ourselves among people who like to touch, who look a stranger in the eye, who welcome us into humble homes.

Or then we can stay put, build a home for the heart right where we are: invite others in, talk in whispers and sit in companionable silence. We can, and must, build a home for ourselves in a world that is not always welcoming, and on the shifting sands of human existence. That home can be a place, or it can be our own body. Yoga teacher Kenan Albayrak once said to me, one nomad to another: “Those of us who have not been born into a place of our own, must be especially willing to root our bodies in this earth. The tendons, the organs, the skin are our kingdoms. They are home, we must know them well.”

The film director and yogi Jari Halonen says that we must spend a lot of time with other people, even if we are not always particularly fond of them. Physical proximity and conversation bring us into the fold again, even if we sense the barrier between us. Alienation is lessened automatically, and it teaches us to curb an excessive consciousness of the self.

Growth is often like massaging the trigger points in muscles: a question of staying put and enduring what must be endured until it loses its ability to pain us. Loneliness teaches us patience, acceptance, a love for others, and weans us from excessive dependence. As Olivia Laing writes, the measure of a life has to do with a “subletting” ability — with how well we are able to settle into this borrowed, imperfect abode and how much beauty we can bring into existence with however little control over its design we may have.

Loneliness and solitude merge and oscillate. Neither of them is a constant state. But with practice, loneliness gives way to solitude more and more often. With it, we gain a bit of distance to our reactions, and realise that loneliness also teaches us how we don’t want our lives to be. We begin to grasp the golden ring, turn our eyes and hands to our dreams.There's no better way to discover your own resourcefulness, and find out whether you really believe in what you are doing.

So many are now wrenched up by war, poverty and blind politics, and left to roam the earth with only the memories of smells and sounds or of a mother’s touch for company. Thankfully that is not a fate I have had to suffer, but having grown up on four continents, I can say as Facundo Cabral does: “No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá “(I am neither from here nor there). But equally I can say: “Ser feliz es mi color de indentidad” (To be happy is the colour of my identity).



For more on learning to love in solitude, and how well it can affect relationships, see Love vs. Dependence

A beautiful piece on loneliness and the creative life, including more from Olivia Laing, is found here in Brain Pickings.