Thursday, March 8, 2018

Loneliness or Solitude?

"Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone.  It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone."  --Paul Tillich

Photo credit:  Larry D. Fenwick
Last week's blog compared the social life of homesteader Isaac B. Werner with those living today, who engage significantly, sometimes primarily, through social media.  Isaac was a bachelor, living at a distance from towns in a community in which most of his neighbors were married couples.  I have blogged in the past about farmers on the prairie working together, about the local school house serving as the community social center, and about the often misunderstood fact that population density was far greater on the prairie than it is today, with 3 or 4 homesteads in each square mile.  However, Isaac and others in his community were often alone, especially at night and because of weather.  

This blog reflects on the distinction between loneliness and solitude, and the impact of the two circumstances.  The quote at the top of this blog is by the German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who lived from 1886-1965.  His words offer a thoughtful way to reflect on the difference between two words, both of which involve aloneness.

Photo Credit:  Lyn & Larry Fenwick

In My Antonia, by Willa Cather, an immigrant neighbor commits suicide, even though he had a loving family to support.  The narrator says, "I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released  spirit would not eventually find its way back to his own country."  The narrator recalls what the man's daughter had told him of "...his life before he came to this country; how he used to play the fiddle at weddings and dances.  I thought about the friends he had mourned to leave,  ...Such vivid pictures came to me that they might have been Mr. Shimerda's memories, not yet faded out from the air in which they had haunted him."

In Rebecca Loncraine's biography of L. Frank Baum, she quotes from the diary of Baum's sister-in-law, whose isolated claim was in Dakota Territory.  Needing to be left alone with her child frequently when her husband traveled on business, she wrote:  "This is awful country...and I want to live East.  ...Alone all day and night again...dreadful, dreadfully forlorn.  Can't stand being alone so much."

Both of these accounts express the crippling effects of loneliness; yet, many people living today, even those living in urban environments and with access to social media with which to stay connected to others, suffer from symptoms caused by social separation--disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones.  Researchers report that social isolation is a growing epidemic, with physical, mental and emotional consequences.  An article by Dhruv Khullar in December of 2016 cites extensive studies showing that an increasing number of Americans say they are lonely, the numbers doubling from the 1980s, increasing from 20% to 40%.  Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline and cause premature deaths.

Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
For younger people, loneliness is often caused by what scientists call "Maladaptive social cognition" or difficulty interacting with others.  For older adults, loneliness is often the result of family members moving away, close friends dying, their own poor health, and their limited mobility.  Khullar  concludes his report by saying, "A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart."  Reflecting back to last week's blog, should we wonder whether all of those hearts and thumbs-up and likes, and the dopamine bursts that come with them, are really making us feel connected with others?

In the late 1800s, Isaac frequently had opportunities to attend social events, yet chose to stay home by the fire to read or write letters.  Not every evening alone means a person is lonely or feels isolated.  Albert Einstein wrote, "Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature."   In fact, many well known men have agreed on this point.  "One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude," wrote Carl Sandburg.  Even in the case of married couples and close friends, Rainer Maria Rilke saw the need for them to respect breaks from too much togetherness.  "I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people:  that each protects the solitude of the other."

Kristina Randle, Ph.D. expressed this irony:  On one hand, the desire to isolate is a symptom of depression but on the other hand it can be a sign of a psychologically healthy individual.  

Self-described introvert Sophia Dembling says, "Solitude is great, until it's not."  Expressing that same need for balance, English artist, art critic, and author Phillip Gilbert Hamerton (1834-1894) wrote:  "We need society, and we need solitude also, as we need summer and winter, day and night, exercise and rest."

Photo Credit:  Lyn Fenwick
In the prime of his life, Isaac Werner seems to have managed this balance.  He was active in his community, encouraged people to work together, and maintained written correspondence with his family and educated people; yet, he enjoyed solitary reading and quiet evenings alone by the fire in reflection of one kind or another.  It was only in his final years that ill health isolated him, compounded by the dwindling correspondence with his siblings.  Dr. Dhruv Khullar's article ends with these words, obviously of particular relevance for the elderly and the home bound:  Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being.  It's up to all of us--doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities--to maintain bonds where they're fading, and create ones where they haven't existed.  

Hannah Arend, one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th Century (1906-1975) believed that "The lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed.  The solitary man, on the contrary, is alone and therefore can be together with himself."

Blogger Aditi Khurana summarizes the differences between Loneliness and Solitude in the following ways:  Loneliness is painful and negative, leaving us feeling excluded, unwanted, unimportant or unnoticed, even when we are with others.  It causes a sense of punishment or rejection that depletes us.  Solitude, however, is a positive state in which we can enjoy our own company and reflect on ourselves, others, our life, and our future, providing greater self-awareness, creativity, growth, and fresh insights.  It is something we choose and grounds us in who we are, enabling us to reach out and give to others.

Combining some of the issues raised in last week's blog about social media with ideas expressed in this blog, seemed to me appropriate.   


The Blog Fodder said...

Too much truth here. I am a people person who loves solitude. When I was young, sitting on a tractor all day with my own thoughts was a joy. People who must have ear buds to a phone or other source of noise miss the sound of their own thoughts. Are they afraid?
But I also get lonely in Ukraine. My own fault for not mastering the language. Lord knows I had enough time. So I depend on the computer to keep me in tough with the English language and with my friends and family. Not good.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I too love solitude--lucky for a writer! And yes, you do enjoy being social as well. Our household is interesting, since I prefer quiet and my husband loves to have some sound, usually music playing, whenever he is in the house. I can read with music playing, but am distracted by television. He is social and I have to make an effort not to get too comfortable staying at home all the time, reading, writing, drawing, and enjoying my solitary interests. We work it out. ;-)