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Only You Know If You're Lonely: Solitude vs. Loneliness

You can be loved and yet be lonely; you can be happy and still be lonely.

Here's the truth: you can be loved and be lonely.

You can be high achieving, extroverted, sociable, and self-confident and be lonely. You can also be an eminent introvert, cultivating the smallest of inner circles and choosing solitude for much of your life and yet be engulfed, at certain times, by loneliness.

You are the only one who knows if you’re lonely.

Your doctor can tell you if you’re healthy; your employer can tell your work is acceptable; your partner, community, or family can tell reassure you that you’re loved. They can’t ask you to pee in a cup, watch you through a one-way window, or take your family history and tell you whether you’re lonely. That’s because loneliness isn’t a fever, a failure, or a forgotten expression of affection. Loneliness can only be measured from within and nobody can diagnose you as lonely, fire you for being lonely, or tell you that you shouldn’t be lonely because, after all, look how everybody cares for you.

Philosopher Paul Tillich made what I believe is the most concise distinction between loneliness and solitude when he wrote: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It 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. Although in daily life, we do not always distinguish these words, we should do so consistently and thus deepen our understanding of our human predicament.”  

Defining solitude? Think of Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry: “The man I meet with is not often so instructive as the silence he breaks.” And consider Cheryl Strayed’s definition in “Wild”: “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.”  

 In contrast to solitude, however, it is disorienting.

Loneliness is where we cannot be who we really are. Instead, we lose perspective, lose our balance, and no longer intuit where, precisely, the boundaries lie between the world and ourselves.

We become unwitting mimes, slapping against invisible walls that are imperceptible to everyone else but impossible for us to shatter. And while loneliness is not an infection, hundreds of studies undertaken by medical, governmental, and corporate entities over the last dozen years have indicated that it does appear to be contagious.  

Introverts are not constitutionally prone to loneliness any more than extroverts are automatically immune to it. The educated and the uneducated rate themselves at similar (and high) levels of loneliness, as do the married and unmarried.    

There is an abundant harvest of convincing data demonstrating that the 21st century is, for many emotionally isolated individuals, a landscape barren of meaningful emotional connections. According to reports recited like catechisms these days by every article on quarantine, worldwide statistics proving that loneliness may represent a public health hazard equivalent to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or having a BMI over 35. The English, under the leadership of otherwise socially conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, appointed in 2018 a Minister for Loneliness to deal with loneliness as “a sad reality of modern life.”    

Is living among other people who give us a sense of purpose a justification for getting up in the morning? Is it the most basic consolation for having been born in the first place?  

Unlike solitude, loneliness, in and of itself, doesn't contain anything noble, beautiful, or strong. It helps no one.  

It has no function except to keep you paralyzed and static. To change, you must be willing to sacrifice your suffering. This is hard because you’ve made a fetish of it.  

Some part of you believes you’re helping along the gods of punishment or the gods of edification, and you’re simply anticipating how they’d teach you a lesson. But they're not involved. 

Separated out when one wants companionship or barred from being part of a collective experience when one wants in, there’s a primal howl we can feel forming far below the bottom of our throats.    

Even the concept of the “lone wolf” is a myth. Wolves hunt in packs.

More from Gina Barreca Ph.D.
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