Loneliness. Solitude. Alone.

Such words often stir feelings deep in our souls and hearts.  As humans we tend to avoid such feelings and experiences.  And yet we have had to often face all three more deeply this year than others.  What do they mean?  Are they the same?  How are they different?  Sometimes we find we want to just brush over the words and feelings that pop up and run to find someone and be busy.  Yet some philosophies, spirituality and philosophy among them, encourage solitude at times.  And in solitude we are alone.   

Depending on the definition, loneliness is either physical isolation or the feeling of sadness over not having people around.  Or, from a philosophical and psychological perspective, it is a feeling of having insufficient relationships or accessibility to others to meet the needs a person has at that time.  It may simply be a need for companionship and with Covid-19 we cannot always get together as we’d like because it competes with need to stay at home more.  

Solitude is defined as the less painful part of not having people available – being alone and enjoying that and finding comfort or relief in the silence, or as Paul Tillich defined it, “the glory of being alone”.   

Alone is simply having no one else present.  It’s a state of being, but not related to feelings.   

Introverts often relish times of solitude and use them to recharge their batteries.  I’m partially introverted, and a quiet evening alone is sheer enjoyment for me.  I am in solitude, not feeling loneliness.  However, an extrovert who recharges with others may face alone time after a busy day as painful and lonely.  That person doesn’t have the others around to recharge with and thus the felt experience of solitude is very different.   

I read a book by a philosopher and psychologist from the 1950’s, Clark Moustakas, that was entitled “Loneliness”.  It was interesting as I read reviews of it on Amazon today – readers talk about it as not being the self-help book of the 2000’s, but rather a warm, inviting book, that asks us to look at what we are experiencing in the way of solitude versus loneliness and helping us to individually tackle the existential loneliness we are feeling at times.  I truly believe the experience of loneliness is not unique to us – but rather something we all experience at times, and based on the situation of it, may feel like solitude is pleasurable or loneliness which is painful.   

I was speaking with a friend who had cancer years ago, and one of the things she mentioned to me was that while she had family and sisters who were there to support her every step, and friends who were available and caring, the essence of her experience was a very lonely one.  She had to go under the radiation with only herself.  And eventually, she had to face her own death in some lonely ways.  Yet she also had times of solitude when she experienced spiritual growth and connection.  During Covid-19 many people are feeling lonely and depressed – others feeling solitude – and both can be in times they are alone or with others.  But it is loneliness that leads to depression.   

Depression is a reaction to longer term loneliness for some, and can leave a person feeling isolated, hopeless, and abandoned.  On a rational level, we may know that we are not abandoned at all, and yet the isolation is hurtful.  I can only imagine how isolating life is for many in senior care facilities or hospitals during this time.  The time we most need connection and love and touch is the very time we are quarantining and not connecting or touching.  And if a person has a limited memory, as many elderly do in senior care facilities, then that must feel like true abandonment.  Thankfully iPads and other devices have allowed some connection for many; but, this is still not the touch and presence that can bring us out of loneliness.  And unfortunately for many living alone and for others isolated in their living without time with friends, this is leading to higher levels of depression that has led to even higher levels of suicide than the past.  This month is National Suicide Awareness month and it’s so important we remain aware that we can turn loneliness to more of an experience of solitude – for growth spiritually and otherwise that can become more positive rather than the intensely painful loneliness that underlies the suicide increases.   

So how does a person make this shift?  Here are a few ideas from multiple sources of both spiritual and psychological literature.  Moustakas would encourage us to look within for what loneliness means to us, and how solitude might help us move out to a more healthy place.  He believed that it comes through introspection and not just trying to change the environment.  So asking yourself questions – what does it mean to you to not have people around as much?  What do you believe that means about you?  How did you come to have that belief?  What are your spiritual beliefs about loneliness?  Is there a way to walk into the loneliness and see what you might learn about yourself?  How is loneliness helpful in your life right now?  What is there for you to learn from it?  Start anywhere in these questions and begin journaling about your own experiences and internal feelings.  I would encourage you to move on to see where this goes and, if you can, look for Moustakas’ book (it’s hard to find but worth it) and take the journey he offers through it.  One of the gifts of loneliness is shifting to solitude through which we find meaning or purpose in this time.  In writing through exercises such as the above I do believe you’ll make your way through the desolation of loneliness to the peace of solitude.  

If depression has you, then first deal with the depression.  If it is significant and/or you have thoughts of self-harm at all – then you need to reach out for help now.  Not later.  There is a suicide hot-line at 1-800-273-8255 that is available 24 hours a day.  If you don’t feel suicidal but the depression is strong, then reach out to your family doctor, gynecologist, therapist, or spiritual director/priest/rabbi and get some help for it.  Only after this is resolved will you be able to move into the above ideas from Moustakas.  

Don’t ignore the spiritual work you may be called to during this time that can soothe the loneliness.  Starting a new practice can be helpful at times when we feel dark around us rather than the light of solitude. At other times hunkering down in a tried and true path is more comfortable.  Regardless, consider which feels right to you and perhaps try walking a handheld or land-based labyrinth, focus on a daily reading, take a mindful walk in the park, reread a special spiritual book or passage in the Bible or your faith’s tradition and take comfort in the words.   

In addition to the personal work, I would also encourage you to consider who else might be available.  Call a friend and ask to do it face-to-face on WhatsApp or Facetime or Zoom or some other modality.  Visual connection helps over only auditory and much more so than text.  I also encourage walks – get out and move and at least see others in your neighborhood as it will give you a mild sense of connection to your community in a safe way.  Other ideas to reaffirm connection can be joining an online class or service where there are regular Zoom or other meetings and you have the opportunity to interact with everyone; planning a weekend camping with a friend or a time at a cabin with friend or family member; volunteering where you feel safe such as walking a dog at a shelter- walking outdoors and cuddling with an animal might meet two needs in one; get a pet after considering what you can handle long-term, it may not be a dog or cat but perhaps a hamster or bird to keep you company.  You get the idea.   

Loneliness is a frequent feeling experienced recently, and may underlie the fatigue many are feeling in following pandemic safety.  There are ways through it, as I’ve shared.  John O’Donohue also writes about solitude and loneliness. May his words bring you encouragement, comfort, and increased solitude over pain.   

With care and best wishes for growth and comfort to your heart,  

Dr. Beth 

Dr. Beth Sikora, PhD, LPC, NCC 

Hope, Love, Faith

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Hope, Love, Faith

Last weekend I spent a lot of time coloring and processing what was happening within.  This weekend I have spent a great deal of time in reading and prayer.  And both weekends I have sought out time with friends or family – through FaceTime, Zoom, or other mediums in order to feel connected.  One thing I believe we are all learning is that much as we are all individually having to handle this crisis given the need for social distancing; we are also in this together – with the entire world.  I keep replaying in my mind a song from the 60’s … “what the world needs now, is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of…what the world needs now, is love sweet love, no not just for some, but for everyone.”  (You can listen to it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUaxVQPohlU).   

And so, we look for love and connections through our faith communities, our friends, our families, and even our pets.  Pope Francis really touched me this weekend when he spoke and said simply, yet powerfully, “We are all on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other … [we] have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.”  This made me begin to think about how I share my hope and love.  And I do have hope for our futures.  It will not be the same future we imagined 30 days ago perhaps; but it can be one that is even more connected with each other, working toward common goals.  I’ve seen small examples of games in the neighborhood like putting a teddy bear in the window for children to find on a walk with their parents during a break in studying at home.  Or neighborhood children (and adults) who have left messages in colored chalk for others walking by.  I loved running across one while walking Finley the other night – just a reminder of not being a solo in the neighborhood, but part of a bigger whole.  Or the neighbors offering to do grocery runs or other errands if someone cannot get out to do their own at this time.   And yet … reminding everyone to stay in as much as possible.  There is hope in the fact that we are reaching out to one another in love … through chalk, teddy bears, or 15-minute errands. 

I’ve found this weekend I also want to express myself in different ways – by returning to some artwork — not to express my emotions, but to enjoy the freedom of creation, the hope in creating something that didn’t exist.  I read a brief article somewhere this morning that said people are reaching out to plant more gardens (it mentioned similar to victory gardens around World Wars I and II).  And we are in a war for our lives and a cure, are we not?  Many are looking at creating something no matter what level of talent they may have.  I would encourage you to reach out and try something this week.  Perhaps a crayon drawing.  Or plant some herbs or flowers if you have the materials or can get them via pick up at one of the local stores like Ace, Home Depot, Walmart, or Lowe’s.  Color a mandala (Go to this link for some free ones to print https://printmandala.com/) or do some paint by number on an app like Happy Color.  One favorite I had as a child and only takes a piece of paper and crayons or markers is to scribble lines and curves all over a blank piece of paper, and then color the spaces in forming a picture among the shapes.  Or, color all of the shapes in, then color over it in black, and lightly scrape off the black letting colored shapes show through the black.  Have children?  In addition to the above projects that would also work for them, check out Highlights at https://www.highlights.com/parents/crafts/31-kids-crafts.  And remember Pinterest always has 100’s of ideas. 

Scribble Art Sample
Scribble Art Sample

Pope Francis speaks of our vulnerability, a favorite topic of Brene Brown as well.  She had her first new podcast recently, and spoke about FFT’s, Frightening (or another F word) First Times.  So many are wondering how does one get through a frightening time like a pandemic?  And Brene said, honestly, none of us knows – it’s our first time, we are all vulnerable and exposed in walking through this time.  Pope Francis said, “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules”.  A student of mine asked me this week if I’d ever survived a pandemic.  As well as sending her a history lesson 😊 I also spoke of the fact we are vulnerable, we are all in the same boat of one day at a time, and reaching out for support from friends, faith communities, and therapists or other care providers during our time of fear and vulnerability; and to our physicians and hospitals if we do become ill.  But allowing oneself to be vulnerable with another – share your fear, allow another to cry or be with their feelings, offer your hope and strength when you have it, be present fully in the moment by text, video chat, letter, email, phone call – will allow you to also move forward “choos[ing] what matters” (Pope Francis).

And so hope, and love, come through faith, connection, vulnerability, giving, and risk in trying new things.  We will not find hope if we hide in a corner.  As frightened as a person may be, the only answer is to come out into the light.  Be vulnerable with another and connect.  Risk doing so and expressing yourself honestly, perhaps for the first time; but at the least for the first time during a pandemic.  Give to others through any way that comes to you to do so.  And walk in your faith, whatever it may be, and take it just one step at a time, one day at a time, through these darker times.  Regardless of your faith, I would encourage you to reach up for strength and hope, reach out in love, and reach in to find one thing to be grateful for each day.  If we each do our best, just our best as we are able to do today, we will make it through this time together.   

Take care of yourself,

Dr. Beth

Delving Deeper Into My Spirituality and God

Lenten season is upon us once again and as we have begun, I’ve noticed a similar theme crop up in a couple of places and it’s had me thinking, how is my relationship with God at the moment? Am I letting Him in, and growing? Or am I going through my busy life with time only for church on Sunday and prayers for sick ones, people I’m concerned for, guidance for myself? That type of superficial relationship is not what fills me up the best. Am I listening to Him? Are you?

The first quote that resonated with me was posted on social media by a friend:

When I was younger, I thought Lent was about giving up something I liked and that was it.

As I’ve grown older, I pray now, “Jesus, what’s keeping me from you?” Usually, I already know the answer. It’s usually the one thing, action, or thought I don’t want to give up.

But every time I do give something up, or take on something else, allowing and inviting Jesus the time and space to change me, I’ve grown in love and sacrifice. “He loved His own in the world, and He loved them to the end.” -John 13:1

He’s longing to love you this Lent.

He’s longing to lead you deeper this Lent.

He’s longing to call you this Lent.

What’s keeping you from Him?

Her comments really hit home and challenged me to look at my life and how I could improve my relationship with God during this Lenten season. This led me to search a few other books, blogs, and videos highlighting Lent as well as my relationship with God.  I found a wonderful video posted which focused on our relationship and how Lent can re-energize our relationship with God.  You can see it at Lent , but be sure to listen to the entire thing or go to about the last minute and a half.  As I’ve been mulling over these in the last 2 days  another voice popped in from a popular blogger I follow, Emily of Jones Design Company. She writes:

In my lifetime of following Jesus, I can only count a few times when I know I’ve heard God speak to me. There are lots of times when He speaks through scripture, music, dreams, conversations or nature. I adore these special moments of closeness and connection.

This time was different.

It wasn’t a conversation or an affirmation. It wasn’t even in response to something I had been talking with Him about. It was a catch-you-off-guard, clear as day directive.

It’s time to write.

I stopped mid-tread, listened, and agreed.

The first two encounters above made me truly consider what is keeping me from allowing me to be closer to my God.  Not just through my actions showing my belief; but also knowing more about Him/Her and especially trusting and allowing Him to really know me.  Offering up the openness in myself to really allow Him to enrich my life and grow in my spirituality, healing; and, in turn, in my own loving, supporting, and giving to others. When I read Emily’s quote it made me wonder whether I’m spending the time to really listen for God, for His word, or for what I’m to learn through different experiences.  In other words, am I responding to my God when He/She is calling me to love me and be with and in relationship.  The question is really one of whether I am allowing intimacy, or deeper intimacy, with God.

What is intimacy with God?  I believe time spent with and quality of that time together with the other(s) are always signs of intimacy in human relationships.  Is this really any different that with God?  I don’t think so.  And in reviewing what others have said I found these additionally:

  1.  There’s an excellent article titled, “5 Ways to Improve Your Relationship with God“,  and one suggestion is to “Abide and Meditate”.  This means finding some time for silence each day. Set a time in your schedule–while you have your morning coffee, just before you go to sleep, or sometime in between–that you turn off your devices, pick up the word of God and really read it and ponder it. Maybe a verse, maybe a chapter, maybe a book. Meditate on what you’ve read and really internalize the meaning.

2.  One of my favorite authors is Thomas Keating, OCSO, a Franciscan priest who truly           gave us all a gift when he was shared how Centering Prayer can allow us to enter a           more intimate, and deep, relationship with God through Centering Prayer.  As he said:       “As we move from conversation to communion with God’s human and divine nature,         Christ, we experience the divine intimacy. ” (You can read more about this form of             prayer at Centering Prayer).

3.  The closeness so evident that God hears us before we even turn to Him or know                  what we need:  “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will                  hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

So now I believe some are asking, what does faith have to do with my psychological functioning?  I’m going to take a risk here and say, it has everything to do with our functioning in life emotionally.  When I presented a workshop last year the intersection between the two was clear, it allows us to be whole people.

Spirit and Psych Intersection

If we look at this, we notice that the first item is related to intimacy and authenticity in our relationships.  Thus as we have a lived sense of spirituality, and this means a healthy spiritual practice, then we will experience more intimacy with others as well.  In Lent, a major focus is that of developing our relationships with God and others.  Any tradition can borrow from this, and take on a period of 40 days to focus on our Higher Power, our God. Colleen’s post indicated that her deeper question for this period this year is what is keeping her from accepting God’s love and being more deeply in a relationship with God.  My suggestion for each and every one of you is to ask yourself:

  1.  What is keeping me from a deeper relationship in my spiritual life?  Is it laziness, or is it fear, or is it a lack of awareness of relationship and has become more rote practice?  Or, is it _________________________?  Fill in your own blank.
  2.  What is one step that I can take during this time to grow psychologically and spiritually?  Do I need to spend more time with God in a way that is meaningful to me on a regular basis?  I am committing to go to some Taize prayer services (see Taize Prayer for an idea about these services if you’re interested).  For some this will be through nature.  I loved Episcopal Bishop Kirk Smith’s e-Pistle where he recently wrote about nature and God.  In it he was discussing Richard Rohr’s quote:  “Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity–however invisible–have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made” as well as Thomas Acquinas’ quote: “Sacred writings are bound in two volumes–that of creation and that of Holy Scripture.”  So perhaps this can be a way to come closer to your Higher Power, your God, this season.  Or, perhaps it needs to be in centering prayer as I mentioned above.  Or, for does it need to be through gratitude?  This is in part the recognition that your Higher Power is at your side even during the times of difficulty. Whether all is well in life at present or you have challenges you’re facing, God’s plan is in place. Thus focusing on recalling the moments where you have been blessed and offer up thanks.  Again, fill in your own blank here:  The step I will take this Lent to inspire my relationship with God is to ____________________________________.
  3. Am I an active participant in my relationship to God or within my spiritual walk?  Many have written about this and how to be more active.  Perhaps read “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller that focuses on how to live in this busy world we have and yet still stay connected with God.  Or, perhaps taking the 7 steps each day that Joyce Rupp talks about, see 7 Steps of Morning .  Maybe it will be watching movies that lead you to deeper awareness of how to be more connected spiritually, like Walking the Camino or The Shack.  Or perhaps looking to music to inspire your spiritual participation with God.  Never tried listening to chants?  Or what about Tibetan bowls?  Or perhaps gospel music is more your speed, but with an Elvis twist:  Lead Me Guide Me  For me, a beautiful classic piece can do it, as can Every Grain of Sand by Bob Dylan and sung by Emmylou Harris at  Every Grain of Sand .Get creative – how can you experience, try new activities to express your feelings or thoughts in relationship with God or in a spiritual manner.  So, answer this question:  I will try a new spiritual practice to become more aware of my participation in relationship to God by ____________________________.

You now have three steps you can take this Lent.  Are you going to use this Lenten season as I am, to delve deeper into your relationship with God? Some focused effort in these coming weeks may really deepen your faith and bring you greater peace. Will you join me?

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