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Understanding Loneliness and Solitude

Monday 04 June 2018 at 12:32 am.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for May 31, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Over the years, I have always felt the loneliest in the midst of a large social gathering, like a cocktail party. All around me, there would be this mindless chatter that I found difficult to take part in. It seemed like dialogue from The Bald Soprano, a Theatre-of-the Absurd play by Eugene Ionesco, words passing back and forth without any real connections.

            In conversations with a couple people, or even in small groups, I have never felt loneliness.

            It seems to me, of all the uncomfortable feelings that can plague us, loneliness is the worst. It’s even worse than worry or anxiety, and it’s the most prevalent feeling in human life.

            During the 28 years I served as a pastor, I think more people came to me to talk about their loneliness than about any other problem. In most cases it was the death of a spouse that led to their terrible sense of being alone. I felt inadequate in my response as my heart went out to those precious folks.

            There are many kinds of loneliness, some more penetrating than others. There’s the loneliness you feel when your child gets married or goes off to college, and her empty room give you this empty feeling in the pit of your stomach. Or when you move out of a house you lived in for many years, -- I can still see the pain and shock in my father’s face as he sat on the steps of the old house he was leaving for the last time.

            There’s the loneliness you feel when your adult child flies back to where she lives, after a long visit with you, the empty, lonely feeling you have when your spouse goes away for a short trip, and the emptiness felt at high school graduations.

            Or when you retire from a job, or from several careers, -- when the reality of leaving your long-occupied office for the last time hits you like a bad dream. Or the realization after 65 years of holding some job or another, your employment years are over.

            These various types of loneliness last for different lengths of time. None should last forever, but in some cases, they do. To be sure, loneliness is not a healthy feeling to live with the rest of your life.

            Hundreds of aphorisms have been written about loneliness and how to prevent it or overcome it, and a little over 100 verses in Holy Scripture speak to the issue of loneliness. Of course, Christians believe God’s omnipresence causes Him to be with you all of the time, assuring you that you are never truly alone. Faith in God’s ever-present presence is certainly a better way of dealing with loneliness than pretending you don’t need people. And it helps to keep you from being a victim of predators who prey on lonely people.

            In order to understand writers and artists who choose isolation in order to create works of art, we have to make a distinction between “loneliness” and “solitude.” Famous theologian, Paul Tillich, once said, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The PAIN of being alone versus the GLORY of being alone! One of the great English poets, William Wordsworth believed that in order to experience and to express the exhilarating beauty of nature, the poet had to experience it in solitude. Japanese haikuists would agree with that.

            The value of solitude was made clear to me by a friend who had grown up with ten siblings in a fairly small house; he longed for solitude which was a rarity in his home. Loneliness, on the other hand, was never an issue. However, having grown up in such an environment, after he left home, he discovered he always had a need for being surrounded by lots of people. Each of us is different, and each of us has a different story to tell about loneliness and solitude.

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Ray Spitzenberger is a retired English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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