I have lived alone for the last twenty years, and mostly it has suited me. I seem, as a woman of mature years, to need, in equal measure. times of interaction with others and times by myself to recharge and reflect. I still teach college students and adults of other ages, so that stimulus is important. Teaching the young keeps me young, and teaching the “not-as-young” brings me into awareness of how we can grow in wisdom as we grow in years.
When being alone became a burden, I could seek out friends from church or in the neighborhood. We might share a walk or a meal, and have stimulating conversation about weighty matters or superficial ones. It mostly was about seeing and being seen, something sociologists say is essential for humans to thrive.
Then came the pandemic, and everything changed. It changed for all of us, but for those of us living alone, it changed drastically.
First came the lockdown and mask-wearing. Masks cover the most expressive parts of the face. Most especially, they obscure smiles. Smiles are the way I would acknowledge the presence of a stranger—a way to indicate that I see them, recognize them as fellow human beings, even if they are perfect strangers. Sometimes a smile would lead to a brief conversation, sometimes actually to making a new friend or acquaintance.
Masks obscure smiles.
Then there is the physical isolation for those of us living alone. The pandemic meant that moving about as we usually do—from home to work to shopping and recreation and our myriad activities—became fraught with peril. Others became objects of fear instead of fellow human beings.
After almost a year of this pandemic-enforced behavior, I began asking myself, “Is this loneliness I am experiencing or is it solitude? And what is the difference?”
I am indebted to some wise person who indicated that the two states were dissimilar, that one was painful and one could be soothing. So I began to reflect on my state in the light of that opinion.
When we feel lonely, we crave another’s company. This is natural, and a part of the social connection we need as humans in order to thrive. But prolonged isolation brings on the element of sadness, of lack, of “feeling blue.” We feel “abandoned.”
Again, some wise person indicated that the person who has abandoned us is ourselves. We have lost touch with our True Self, our Divine Connection to All That Is. Solitude, on the other hand, is not painful, but welcoming, because we take measures to stay connected to our Deep Self—the Self intimate with Divine Love.
What are these measures we use to connect inward deeply? They are as varied as we are as people, but quieting the “ego” or “monkey mind,” with its constant, fearful chatter, through some type of mindfulness or meditation technique seems to be a requisite. I prefer ways that include the physical body rather than ones that seem to try to escape it. Embodied, we can employ the presence of the physical part of us to ground us in the present moment. The body is always in the NOW, whereas our minds run equally backwards to the past and forwards to an imagined future.
Being a musician and music lover, music often helps me connect to my Deeper Self. I can listen to recorded music of various types, or I can make my own music—singing, playing the piano, even playing my small folk (lever) harp which I am just learning how to do at my more advanced age. Not expecting mastery at this stage of life, I simply enjoy the process of learning. The sound of the harp is very pleasurable, and feeling pleasure is a great antidote to the pangs of loneliness.
When I first sat down to write this essay, I had a pat answer in mind: loneliness is when you abandon your Self but solitude is when you stay connected to that Self. I still think there is truth in that, but I hesitate to make it sound pat. Some days, no matter what we do to reconnect, we simply feel the pain of disconnection. Maybe that is to bring to our awareness even more vividly how much we need to connect with our True Self, with the Divine, and with each other?