"Automat" by Edward Hopper
I get asked about loneliness a lot. When I wrote about it in How to Be Sick
, I admitted that it was the chapter I put off composing until I was done with the rest of the book. Learning to be alone without being lonely can be a challenge. It has been for me. So, I thought I’d see what others have said about loneliness.
Language …has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. —Paul Tillich
I wanted to start with Tillich’s words because this quotation is a central theme of that loneliness chapter in my book. As I say there, being alone, in itself, is a neutral state—neither negative nor positive. But it becomes emotionally painful when we add to it an intense longing for our life to be different than it is even if our circumstances make that impossible—for example, even if we can't be actively social outside our house or apartment. When that longing goes unsatisfied, being alone turns into Tillich’s painful loneliness. But if we can open our hearts and minds to look for what we might treasure about being alone, it can, at times, become Tillich’s glorious solitude. (In “How to Turn Loneliness into Sweet Solitude,” I wrote about some of those treasure that others and I have found.)
The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend! —Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
I’m certain we’ve all had the experience of being in the presence of “kind people who only ask us to pretend”—in my case, to pretend to be healthy. I used to get angry about it. Now I try to see it from their point of view—how their heartfelt wish for me to be healthy can be so overwhelming at times, that it leads them to pretend that I am healthy…and to expect me to pretend with them.
Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the spaces between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. —Maya Angelou
I love Angelou’s image of curling her back to loneliness—filling up those spaces until the fit was so snug that music was the only thing that could get through to fill her heart. Your refuge need not be music. It can be anything that brings you comfort—a cuddly pet or even a special pillow. The audiobooks of E.M. Forster and Alexander McCall Smith serve that purpose for me. The narrators are like old friends; I’ll listen to the same book over and over, as Angelou must have done with a favorite piece of music.
Inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up. —Pearl Buck
Had I not become chronically ill, I might never have understood what Pearl Buck was talking about. That’s because, before I got sick, I was rarely quiet or still long enough to notice what was going on inside me! Even when I had a regular meditation practice, I was following instructions, and so never really felt alone. But “the springs never dried up,” and so now, when I lie in bed in the quiet, I sometimes feel those springs renewed. In those moments, I’m content to watch (in the words of the poet, Mary Oliver), my “one wild and precious life” unfold.
Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering—and it’s all over much too soon. —Woody Allen
I had to give Woody a word here, because his movies have kept me company during this illness, especially in the early years when I was overcome with loneliness.
I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
"Portrait of Jaime Sabartés " by Picasso
Fitzgerald is reminding us that loneliness is not always confined to the bed or the house—or even to being alone. Some people who work all day around others feel a terrible loneliness. We shouldn’t assume that loneliness is the prerogative of those who are isolated by chronic pain, illness, or other circumstances.
The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself. —Mark Twain
Twain didn’t just say “loneliness” is not being comfortable with yourself. He said, “The worst loneliness.” That got my attention. My worst loneliness was when I was in denial about not recovering my health and then turned that denial into self-blame, as if being chronically ill were a defect in my character. I definitely was not comfortable with myself—not one bit.
That loneliness only subsided when I became comfortable with my life as it is now: I’m sick; it’s not my fault that I got sick; I’ll continue to try and regain my health; in the meantime, the best treatment is self-compassion. Treating myself with compassion includes holding tenderly in my heart the unpleasantness of feeling sick all the time. It also includes speaking to myself in a kind voice about the difficulties and challenges I’ve had to face—losing my career, drastically reducing my social life, and, yes, being alone much of the time.
Remember we’re all in this alone. —Lily Tomlin
I can always count on Lily to turn a phrase in just the right way.
Lonely is a funny thing. It’s almost like another person. After a while it will keep you company if you let it. —Ann Packer
I came across this passage several years ago while listening to the audiobook of Ann Packer’s novel, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. I almost gasped when I heard it because it opened my heart and mind to a possibility I’d never considered. I immediately stopped the tape and wrote her words down. I’ve carried this passage in my heart ever since. I hope it brings you as much comfort as it’s brought me. Now, if I feel lonely, I don’t resist it. I treat it as a familiar guest who shows up from time to time. I let it keep me company, knowing that it will eventually go on its way, making way for glorious (or at least bittersweet) solitude.
Solitude is fine but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine. —Honoré de Balzac
I’ve got all of you, dear readers!
© 2012 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com
Chapter 16 of my most recent book, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, includes a practice specifically designed to help ease the pain of loneliness.
I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers.
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