Loneliness to Solitude

Nov 3, 2022

 Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

It's a bit embarrassing but often I talk to myself out loud when I am walking in the morning.  I hope that you see my headphones in and think I am just talking on my phone! 🤪 As I walk and talk I reconnect with myself and ponder my thoughts and feelings. Lately I am trying to get acquainted with that sad and empty, but very familiar feeling that creeps up on me. It happened  sitting by myself as a child, staring at the roof of my bedroom as an adolescent, and searching for friends as a young adult. I had always hoped that someone would fill in that feeling of emptiness. When that didn't happen it was discouraging. Sometimes I had a moment where I would feel close to someone but people would leave and then it would hurt.  Sometimes even when I was in the middle of that feeling of closeness it would feel inadequate. I had not gotten enough. My bucket was not full.  This often left me with the feeling of frustration with myself or with the other person. I wanted to give up and withdraw or to latch on with desperation. I long for a more grounded way to approach this feeling. I would love to be able to live out the Poet Rilke’s quote above to learn to “love my solitude”  and this blog is an attempt “to sing out with the pain it causes.” 

The reality is we don’t spend much time alone with our thoughts anymore. We say we are busy but in reality we have a hard time tolerating quiet and we run from it. Just try sitting in a room in the quiet for even 10 minutes by yourself without your phone! There is a fear of “that feeling.” But even in our “busy-ness” we still feel loneliness and so it is used as a sales technique.  Just watch an ad for practically anything and you’ll see the message about the warmth and connection that thing will provide.  They know what we are missing.  Pornography is the most extreme example of this selling of intimacy.  All the lonely people around us. It's sad!

Henri Nouwen, the old spiritual writer, talks about the journey from what he calls  “loneliness to solitude.” The message is that much of our walk through life is about attempting to fill that gap; that feeling of loneliness. Even when we partially fill it with other people we are on tenuous ground. There is always a limit to relationships.  They can’t fill us up all the time and we get anxious and angry as we think those close to us should be fixing our loneliness.  They are not doing their job.   How do we get to the point where we can let this go, enjoy healthy solitude and connect with ourselves? 

So in my attempt to solve this problem I walk slowly in the morning and notice what my loneliness feels like. As I said I can see how I have been looking to relationships to soothe it. The relationship works for a while but I realize it's like throwing “a little water on my dry ground” of loneliness. That “happy buzz” disappears eventually and you want some more. People can’t always be close. We have to learn to tolerate that feeling and find something deeper and more solid. It takes slowing down and “singing out with the pain” to see that this is real. 

This is what good therapy or a good friend does for us. As long as you are still spinning mentally sitting in the quiet does little. Someone by your side is needed to begin the journey  to slow things down so that you can notice the lonely feeling and not be so anxious about it.  If you can stop being afraid of that feeling of emptiness the pendulum can swing. If there’s enough courage to be able to explore and appreciate your solitude then you can learn to not depend on others to fill that loneliness gap anymore. You will still need connection with people but now you can welcome people into that space inside that you have made with real hospitality. There will always be some loneliness but in your voyage back-and-forth from painful loneliness to peaceful solitude you can learn some important lessons about yourself. 

Good luck on the journey!