What is the difference between aloneness and loneliness? What role does solitude play?
Psalm 68:5-6 5 Father of orphans and defender of widows is God in his holy habitation. 6 God settles the lonely in their homes; he sets prisoners free with happiness, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.
[Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.]
Recently, while on a three day retreat, I awoke full of lethargy on the morning of the middle day. That’s unusual for me; I am a morning person. It was a lackluster day – low energy, not much focus, no creativity. Since the next day returned to “normal” I didn’t pay much attention to the lethargy I had experienced. I wrote it off as the result of a poor night’s sleep. I should have paid closer attention. It was an early warning signal that something was stirring within me.
After returning home, I began to realize the reason(s) for that stirring. On the one hand, my life has developed a rather clear pattern — without a lot of variety. I am doing the same things over and over — reading, writing, phone calls with my soul brother, my quarterly 3-day and monthly 24-hour retreats, church on Sunday, bridge on Wednesday, and interaction with my daughter and grandkids… a lot of time in my apartment. All good stuff, but not much variety. My life has always had a lot of variety to it. Not a lot of opportunity to fall into pattern ruts. Now I am in a pattern rut.
More important than this pattern rut, or maybe the reason that I am in a rut, has been a deeper awareness and recognition. Ever since my wife’s brain trauma 35+ years ago and the resulting frontal lob dysfunction, I have had to deal with my aloneness — that is with the reality that I had lost my best friend, my life’s companion. As we often do in relationships, I had expected my wife to fill my gaps and bring me to some sense of completion. I know that this is a fantasy, but a fantasy that many/most of us take into marriage and other significant relationships. Being enamored of another often hides, rather than reveals, the fantasy. Henri Nouwen has suggested that significant relationships can often open “enormous space” within us but many times that space cannot “be filled by the one who opened it.”
When the fantasy is destroyed it is easy to get sucked into a black hole of existential despair or to distract oneself by chasing after other fantasies. However when anyone pays attention to the loss of the fantasy, they can get in touch with the philosophical / spiritual state of aloneness. I was able, through a gradual process aided by a lot of people, to acknowledge my aloneness and transform it into solitude. Solitude is a cluster of spiritual practices which can enrich and transform. In solitude I was helped to move toward a greater sense of integrity and wholeness. A hear and a half ago my wife died. I grieved, but was not devastated because I had been dealing with my aloneness and solitude for quite some time.
Now to the something “stirring” within… I finally realized and have been able to articulate that I am now experiencing loneliness. Loneliness and aloneness are quite different, though related, phenomena. Aloneness is a foundational reality of life, a spiritual dimension that undergirds who we are and what we do. Philosopher A. N. Whitehead said that “religion is what we do with our aloneness.” Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotional reality, a feeling that comes when circumstances are not as desired. I am aware that loneliness is something that we often try hard to “fix,” often to our detriment — rushing to a new relationship to replace a relationship that has ended. I am not sure how to proceed, but I do know that my loneliness is not something I need to “fix.” Instead, I need to experience its full force, learn from it, and move with it and through it. No goals… no timeline… just solitude, reflection, journaling, talking, and being.
Then, hoping against hope, I will be more settled in my home and free with happiness.