I wrote this blog post on a plane while solo traveling, long before COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. I never published it because, well, it just didn’t seem relevant. It didn’t seem like something anyone would care about. But after two months of lockdown, I have resurrected (and slightly modified) the post here. I think society has a loneliness problem. And it has nothing to do with being alone.
Like a high school essay or poorly written wedding toast, I am going to start this post with a dictionary definition. Please, don’t stop reading yet.
The Oxford Dictionary defines solitude as the state or situation of being alone, a lonely or uninhibited place.
You might be wondering why I would take such a risk and begin a blog post in one of the dullest ways possible, but hear me out. I have a point.
What I find so odd about this definition is how it is inconsistent with that of other dictionaries and reference points. And, in my opinion, the definition is simply incorrect.
“Wow big talk Mikaela, questioning the Oxford dictionary now? What’s next? Denying gravity? Suggesting the New York Times is fake news? Who. Do. You. Think. You. Are?!?!”
Okay, okay, okay I get it. Oxford Dictionary is a pretty reputable source. But take a look at these other definitions.
Solitude: The state or situation of being alone, often by choice (Cambridge Dictionary)
Solitude: The state of being alone, especially when this is pleasant or peaceful (Collins Dictionary)
Notice that none of these definitions suggest solitude is lonely. Why? Because solitude isn’t meant to be lonely. If you’re experiencing solitude and you start to feel lonely, guess what you’re experiencing? Yes, that’s right, loneliness. Not solitude.
The reason I am so adamant about making this distinction – that solitude is not equivalent to loneliness – is because I wholeheartedly believe they are fundamentally different experiences (and Collins and Cambridge agree with me, so take that Oxford).
Here’s a question for you. Has anyone ever been at a party or an acquaintance’s birthday dinner and felt isolated from the people around you? Sure, you’re six inches away from them physically. But on an emotional level, you couldn’t be further apart? You make pleasant conversation about your job or the latest Trump scandal, but secretly you’re checking the time and cursing every person who ordered an appetizer, meal and now wants dessert too.
Likewise, have you ever gone walking on a beach or through a forest on your own, and, in a way you can’t quite articulate, felt a strong connection to yourself and your surroundings.
And that is where solitude and loneliness diverge. Solitude is being physically alone, whereas loneliness is being emotionally alone.
Can they go hand in hand? Of course. Spend too much time in solitude and you’ll inevitably feel loneliness. In the novel and film, Into the Wild, Chris McCandells meets his tragic end after realizing everyone, including himself, need connection. It’s what makes life worth living. Humans are creatures of connection and belonging.
Solitude can be invigorating. In the silence you hear your heart. You hear your soul. What it is you want. What it is you’re here to do. Solitude can be deeply spiritual, whether you are religious or not. It’s no wonder some of the best writers, poets, musicians and thinkers were often alone. Were they lonely? Maybe. Perhaps. But I’d take a bet and say they enjoyed the isolation, or at least took benefit from it, far more than the loneliness could ever bother them.
And you don’t need to shack up in a cabin in Antarctica to experience solitude. Far from it.
Solitude can be paddling a tandem canoe in silence.
You’re aware of your partner’s strokes and the way the boat sways as they shift their weight, but you don’t need to fill the air with mindless chatter. You both canoe in silence, acknowledging the way the paddle feels in your hands or scanning the shoreline for wildlife, day dreaming of the future or planning your next meal. You’re together physically, but spiritually distant.
Solitude can be watching movies and ordering room service alone in your hotel room.
Before nights like these become routine, being alone in a hotel room can feel exciting. New sensations – the soft feel of the bed, the smell of cleaning product, the peculiar orientation of antiquated stock furniture – yet, still familiar. The bed is still a bed, comfortable and warm. The smell vaguely resembles a prior hotel visit. Within the confines of the furniture, you organize your possessions the way you like.
Solitude is a state of mind. A perspective on the world.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is when you can’t connect to the people around you, whether that be physical or emotional connection.
Next time you find yourself alone, take stock of your mindset. Am I lonely, or is this an opportunity for me to practice solitude?
I know this won’t work all the time. Not all loneliness can be cured by mindset. Just like depression can’t be cured my “snapping out of it”. But I do think, for the majority of us, there is opportunity to rethink what it means to be alone.
Social media sure hasn’t helped. In the age of hyper-connectivity we have ironically lost our ability to form genuine connections with other people. My take, you’re lonely not only when you’re alone. You’re lonely all the time because this generation, specifically in Western society, has never learned to form strong bonds. We don’t know how to show up for one another when it matters.
We don’t call our parents enough and we travel too often. When a friend is in need, do we always come through for them? Do we have to think about it? Is it worth your time? Are you too busy to help? We care more about what the strangers on the internet think of us than what our close friends and partners think. Our experiences are lived while thinking about what will caption them for Instagram.
We were the generation of loneliness long before a virus locked us in our homes.
Loneliness is the sickness of our generation. And it has anything to do with being physically alone. In fact, I think we could all use a little solitude. A little real solitude. Where we turn off the phone for an extended period of time. Long enough to hear about inner thoughts through all the noise. This is one of the reasons I love canoe tripping.
It’s ironic. Without connectivity we can find connection.
So where do we go from here? I don’t have the answers. I have spent the better part of the last ten years wrestling with my own loneliness and depression, feeling I had no intimate relationships, no one who really knew me. I’m rebuilding this narrative slowly, simply just by showing up.
I call my friends and family more often. I try to check my phone less when I’m out with people. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying. I talk about my feelings (kind of). Honestly, this lockdown has been one of the least-lonely times of my life.
So will we ever get out of this loneliness paradox? Once we can go to malls and movies theatres and have drinks with friends or go to restaurants – will be feel less lonely? Maybe for a fleeting moment. But if a global pandemic can’t break a habit or a mindset, can anything? Or are we destined to be forever six feet apart?