How is solitude different from loneliness? To me, there is a world of difference. They may look or seem alike from the outside, but what happens on the inside, in our soul, our center, is very different. The resemblance between the two disappears the instant we go inside.
As I see it, words like lonesome and lonely describe the pain of being alone when we don’t want to be, and solitude describes the joy of being alone as a choice, a need. Loneliness depletes our bodies and minds; solitude can restore them. Loneliness can feel like we’re being punished or abandoned; solitude can be something we cherish.
There are words that help describe solitude, and some of the words may even be considered synonyms: contemplation, meditation, pondering, considering, renewal, enrichment, silence, quietness, calmness, refreshment. What beautiful words.
Choosing to be alone is not the same thing as being lonely. The difference is perhaps like the difference between rowing and drifting. It’s important to take time sometimes to make sure we’re headed in a purposeful direction. Thoughtful “alone time” can help us make some course corrections as needed, refine our priorities, get a clearer sense of direction. Solitude can give us the chance to regain perspective. It renews us for the challenges we face. It allows us to get back into the position of being in charge of our own lives rather than being driven by schedules, lists, and demands from without.
I know people who say that their choice to be alone provides them with wonderful, satisfying company. Isn’t that great? Sometimes I feel that’s true with me, but I know I’m not skilled at it—I’m still gaining experience.
I first became aware of solitude—although I didn’t know what to call it—when I was a teenager. We had moved to Mapleton, Utah, and ours was the very last house on the road. I would take our boxer dog, Genny, and we’d walk up the road to the foothills in the early evening. She would stand guard while I’d sit and pray and then just think. I always came away from those experiences refreshed and renewed.
Solitude is a way to nurture and commune with our own souls. For me, it’s like I have a chance to ask myself, “How are you doing?” It’s an opportunity for digging deep—for thinking more deliberately and deeply than I usually do. The philosopher Martin Buber said that “solitude is the place of purification.”
I’ve discovered a comforting and helpful thing: Loneliness can be turned to solitude. I’ve learned this for myself, and I’ve had many others confirm the feeling. We can actually discover and enjoy a retreat from our busy, sometimes noisy lives, and a chance for spiritual renewal.
I know there are times when I try to “cure” my loneliness by jumping into a frenzy of busy-ness. This might help a little bit initially, but in the long run it doesn’t really work. It’s hard to find solitude while watching TV, attending a sporting event, going to a movie, or other such things.
One thing that happens to me when I work to turn my loneliness into solitude is that I no longer feel alone. I feel closer to God, and I even feel closer to myself, if that makes sense. Lord Byron described it this way: “in solitude, when we are least alone.”