Loneliness, Isolation and Solitude

The world is no doubt full of paradoxes. I recently read of a poll taken in the United States that indicated that 25% of adults reported feeling lonely and isolated. It is a strange phenomenon that somebody in a country with a population of over 310 million should feel isolated and lonely!

I have no doubt that such a poll would elicit similar results in Australia and in many other countries. In this week’s essay I want to explore some of the issues around, loneliness, isolation and solitude.

In the city going about our business, we hurry down the footpath and as we walk, we encounter hundreds and hundreds of people – but the encounter is a very distant one. Largely we are unaware of this mass of humanity that surges by us. We seldom make eye contact and when we do we look away so as not to risk an unwanted encounter.

Or we sit in the bus or the train with dozens of others and listen to our I-pod, read our paper or temporarily assuage our loneliness by using our mobile phone. We go to great lengths to ensure we have our private bit of space and are indignant when others encroach on it.

Now this strategy is well and good if we are satisfied with our own company. Being an introvert I, personally, am quite comfortable having time to myself to think and read or whatever. Being by myself (even when in a crowd) is not in the least stressful. But there seems to be many of us that don’t feel comfortable in their own company. Such folk somehow need to be assured by other people that their problems are not unique and they gain comfort in talking about their everyday issues, their ailments and the weather. Their humanity is somehow affirmed by this.

So to begin with, not having people around us that we know or can easily converse with does not necessarily need to be a problem. But some will feel isolated even in a crowd.

But why is it so difficult with such a throng of people nearby to be able to engage in a meaningful way?

When our ancestors lived as hunter gatherers in tribes, we knew each member well and probably had discourse with them on almost a daily basis. As we evolved into agrarian societies and lived in villages, mostly all the villagers were known to us and we still shared such commonality that knowledge of their many shared interests enabled us to have social conversation.

But as our villages grew into cities this became much more difficult. More and more of the people we would see on a daily basis were not known to us. Then, unfortunately, we unconsciously began to assume that because we didn’t know them, we had nothing in common with them. As a result we often treat those human beings that we encounter in such an arbitrary way as merely objects. If they are not known to us, not members of our families or of our known community, they have become less than human beings and are therefore merely some objects that we encounter in the course of our daily lives.

We are like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem who exclaimed,

“Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

We have people everywhere but can’t seem to make a personal connection and thus become isolated and lonely.

I suppose the huge expansion of the social media technologies has been accelerated by this phenomenon. No doubt some people feel that using Facebook, Twitter and e-mail allow them to connect with others. But it seems to me a very impersonal connection and will never replace the joy of a good conversation. I also suspect that because these technologies are so ubiquitous and impersonal we might be in danger in losing some of that capacity that has now become known as emotional intelligence.

Be that as it may, I would like to come back to my earlier remarks that implied that being alone is not necessarily a bad thing, and if being alone causes us to feel lonely then there are some shortcomings in our emotional and psychological makeup.

Milton wrote:

“In solitude
What happiness! Who can enjoy alone,
Or all enjoying what contentment find!”

Contemplating on his life Edward Gibbon wrote:

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

When we start our lives the scenario is different. In early childhood, attachment to parents or to parent substitutes is essential if the child is to survive. And some psychologists maintain that secure attachment is probably necessary if we are to develop into an adult capable of making intimate relationships with other adults on equal terms. Providing children with a stable loving environment seems to promote secure attachment and the growth of self-confidence. These are good foundations for psychological growth and maturity. This equips us to be able to deal with solitude in a positive way.

Donald Winnicott, the British paediatrician, many years ago suggested that it was only when we, as infants, had secure attachment that we could forget our need for that attachment. By detaching ourselves from this need we could experience being by ourselves (even though still in the presence of another) and that is how our sense of self, that is as a separate person with a separate identity begins to develop. We essentially then can forget that we are accompanied and learn what it is like to be alone in a non-threatening way.

The child then builds up its capacity to be alone first probably in the presence of the mother and then without her. Winnicott goes on to suggest that this enables infants to develop their capacity to get in touch with, and make manifest, their own true inner feelings.

Anthony Storr, the British psychiatrist, drawing on this work then wrote:

“The capacity to be alone becomes linked with self-discovery and self-realisation; with becoming aware of one’s deepest needs, feelings and impulses.”

I have read occasionally in the psychology literature of the anxiety people can often feel when left alone. Or sometimes about people who withdraw as a defence mechanism because they feel persecuted for example. But I can’t recall any discussions on the positive aspects of the capacity to be alone. (Perhaps this is another theme that the proponents of positive psychology might like to take up!)

The traditional wisdom traditions have emphasised the benefits of solitude. Enlightenment came to the Buddha as he meditated alone beneath the Bodi tree. Jesus, according to tradition spent forty days alone in the wilderness. In Islam it is recorded that Muhammad each year during the month of Ramadan withdrew to the cave of Hera. St Catherine of Siena spent three years in seclusion in her little room in the Via Benincasa during which she underwent a series of mystical experiences before entering into an active life of teaching and preaching.

And you do not need to be a mystic to enjoy the benefits of solitude. The American aviator and polar explorer, Admiral Byrd, insisted that he should man an advanced weather base in the Antarctic alone during the winter of 1934. His rationale for manning this solitary vigil was that:

“Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort. Nothing whatever, except one man’s desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.”

It is worth recording that Byrd was not escaping from personal unhappiness. He describes himself as having an extraordinarily happy private life.

There is a great analogy with stress here. When people face stress the natural inclination is to find ways of reducing the stressors. It would usually be much more helpful if we could find ways to increase their resilience. And so it seems to me with loneliness. I suspect that more people would benefit from improving their capacity to be alone, and hopefully finding positive outcomes from solitude, than efforts to have them engage with others.

The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource. It enables men and women to get in touch with their deepest feelings; to come to terms with loss; to sort out their ideas; and in some instances to change attitudes. It also encourages the growth of creative imagination. There is a long list of authors whose biographers have emphasised the importance of solitude at various stages of their lives to spur their creativity. Anthony Trollope, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, Tolstoy, Rudyard Kipling, P G Wodehouse – to name just a few.

Of course, as usual, as Aristotle and the Buddhists have told us for two millennia, the ideal would be to take the middle way and do both – that is to engage socially but also to appreciate our solitude. I, just as much as anyone, enjoy the company of friends and family, and the intellectual stimulation of in-depth conversations – but I am comfortable being alone as well. I guess my main message in this little essay is that if you are lonely don’t believe the only solution is to find ways to engage with others. It is just as important, and very beneficial, to learn to enjoy your own company!

Let me close with some of the words of Wordsworth, from “The Prelude.”

“When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.”

3 Replies to “Loneliness, Isolation and Solitude”

  1. Some great points there Ted. I recently had cause to consider the positive effects of melancholy to balance life’s highs (although believing I have the ability to choose not to wallow long in it). I have just read a book I’d like to draw to you and your readers’ attention. It is a Penguin book possibly in short publishing run called “Jacksons Track” – a story about the situation of Aboriginal people in East Gippsland. Very thought provoking regarding colonialism in CQ and throughout Australia!

    All the best in these damp times.


  2. I am an extravert, or so I am told by the questionnaires I complete. I certainly enjoy conversations and contact with people. I go to work for this primarily and to do something useful as a secondary result. You can probably even tell by the verboseness of my blog comments each week that I like to talk 🙂

    That said I have for a long time had this fantasy of going fishing on my own and catching an impressive trophy fish and then while praising and talking to the fish gently letting it go and telling no one about it. It would be a wonderfully selfish experience that I could smile to myself about at any time I wanted to remember it.

    When I travel on my own for work I normally still eat in the restaurant rather than get room service, even though I sit on my own. I once felt alone and isolated while doing this but once I learned to observe and listen to what is happening around me it became a quite different experience. When I take a genuine interest in people or even my surroundings generally I am no longer lonely, and in fact it is a very pleasurable experience (a nice wine and good food helps of course).

    I would once get frustrated and angry while waiting on my own for my wife or kids when they were half an hour late when I came to pick them up. Now I observe what is around me with interest and thought and I no longer get frustrated and the time flies.

    On the flip side if I am on my own for the day and sit down to watch a couple of movies, at the end of that process I feel down and dismal. I don’t know why but popular media is not a way to manage loneliness. Build something, clean something, tidy something, learn something, but definitely do something useful and you always feel heaps better. I wonder sometime whether the old Christian saying “Idle hands do the devils work” comes from this.

Comments are closed.