Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

10 Quotations and Reflections on Loneliness

Take comfort in what others have said about loneliness.

"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 trouble is not that I'm single and likely to stay single, but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.Charlotte Bronte

This quotation is both sad and encouraging to me. I'm sad that Bronte was convinced that she was likely to stay lonely, but I'm encouraged that she does not equate being single with being lonely. Some people treasure being single. For them, it's that glorious solitude of being alone—doing what they want to do whenever the spirit moves them. The quiet. The peacefulness.

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the spaces between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. Maya Angelou

Your refuge can be anything that brings you comfort. A warm bath. A cup of tea by a window with sunlight streaming in. 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.

"Study" by Isidre Nonell
Inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up.Pearl Buck

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. It's a moment of blessed peacefulness.

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.

"Portrait of Jaime Sabartés " by Picasso
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

Let us not forget that some people who work all day around others feel lonely. We shouldn’t assume that only those of us who are isolated by chronic pain or illness are subject to loneliness.

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 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

This passage is from Ann Packer’s novel, The Dive From Clausen’s Pier. Hearing it on audiobook opened my heart and mind to a possibility I’d never considered. I immediately stopped the tape and wrote her words down. 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 Sorrowincludes 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

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. To receive an email the next time I post, click here. I'm active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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