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