Some Thoughts on Solitude

‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ ran the once popular ad. Today, its haunting ambiguity lingers on, inviting reflection on the sociality of the human condition, or the lack of it. Can we, or should we, seek to be alone? Does being alone invariably mean we are lonely? Or is being alone our natural state? After all, we are born alone and we ultimately die alone. In the moment of death we return to that primal moment of separation from whatever it is that we have come from, both physical and spiritual.

 The last sound we make in this life will be an echo of the primal cry of birth, a cry of protest shaped by desire for something left behind, for some other being. We protest in the face of our aloneness, in death as in birth.

To be alone is not necessarily to be lonely, although it is often thought of in that way. To be truly alone is to embrace solitude. Solitude is necessary for human health whereas loneliness destroys the human spirit.

To experience loneliness, a person needs to have known what it is to be left to themselves, to be left truly alone, before they have come to know their true self, as can happen with rejection in childhood. The abandoned child will have left a great part of themselves in the place from which they have been banished and perhaps with the person who has rejected them.

Bereavement in early childhood can also be felt as abandonment or rejection, leaving that person feeling inwardly naked and often angry.  Lonely people are vulnerable because they go through life in a state of inner nakedness – as naked souls, perhaps.

Loneliness is never chosen. But solitude must be chosen and then learned. It is a free choice. Unlike loneliness, it does not impose itself and it never cheats those who embrace it. It never cheats them of the joy it promises. It is always its own reward.

Making the jump from aloneness, and the loneliness associated with it, to the kind of solitude in which life gestates and yields creativity in the true sense of the word, is not something achieved through will power. Neither can we try to effect solitude, because we are curious to know what it is like to experience some sort of higher spiritual state.

Solitude is not about being in a higher state. It is about acceptance of the present moment in the full knowledge that it is as it is, whether it is a moment of joy or sadness or intense boredom.

Inherent to solitude, as opposed to loneliness, is the expectation that there is also something deeper and greater than anything we might be experiencing or thinking about in this present moment. Solitude, if we will allow it, makes it possible for the moment to be inhabited by Love itself, a Love which re-clothes us in the nakedness of what would otherwise be our loneliness.

Since solitude is not chosen and yet never fails to deliver what it promises, it is essential that a person simultaneously seeks and waits for solitude to come to them, that they wait for it to happen, rather than actively seeking it out.

This is a question of disponibilité, to borrow from the French philosopher Simone Weil. To be disponible is to be fully available, permanently ‘on call’ to the one who promises. It is a state of mind and heart which can take a lifetime to learn, especially if a person has experienced real loneliness and depression. Depression is, among other things, an acute state of vulnerability and abandonment, possibly including a sense of having been abandoned by God. Such a person might be distrustful of methods for dealing with depression which have a religious ‘tinge’ to them. They may not trust religion at all.

Re-generative and transforming solitude comes about as a gift in its own right. It is the antidote to the causes of depression, although it will not cure depression itself. Depression, we are learning, is a chemical imbalance as much as an emotional one and needs to be treated accordingly.

The gift which comes with solitude simply makes it possible for the one suffering from depression, and the loneliness it brings, to step outside that particular state of mind and view it objectively as something other than themselves. Depression does not define who they are. Their true self remains inviolate from any kind of ‘cause’ in regard to the depression they may be experiencing.

The damaged self waits for the gift which solitude brings. Solitude involves being available to having something given to us which is both unconditional and life-transforming. It changes the way we see things and people. It places them within a wider framework, one which can usefully be seen as having been constructed around the people or memories that touch our lives at any given moment.

Solitude can enable a kind of framework for whatever may be assailing a person in any given moment, like a picture surrounded by a frame. This conceptual framework contains us, and our situation in regard to them, as it would a painting. It allows us to see things as they are in the general scheme of things. When we see a person, whether from the past or in the present, in that ordered context it sometimes becomes possible to meet them in a new and different way. In other words, it allows us to forgive them, without feeling that in so doing we are exposed once again to the pain we may have already endured at their hands.

Abuse and trauma survivors are not required to re-experience their pain, either in reality or as a memory, in order for forgiveness to occur. We can only do so much when it comes to forgiving our abusers. It is God’s business to do the major part of the forgiving work, but he does it with our permission, so to speak. We have enough to do in simply being vulnerable to Love itself. That is the primary work of solitude, and of forgiveness. The riches of solitude are the riches of Love incarnate, love which is hard, tough and resilient. It is love as we see and know it in the person of Jesus Christ.

Author: Lorraine Cavanagh

Anglican priest living in Wales, UK. Author. Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon

One thought on “Some Thoughts on Solitude”

  1. Very interesting Lorraine. I wondered if you had come across Malcolm Rothwell’s book…Sense and Nonsense. Malcolm is a retired Methodist minister who quite some time ago, before writing the book, spent a month following a Jesuit silent retreat which he says transformed his life.

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