Years ago, I read the book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, which was recently turned into a movie. It is a beautiful story about a family coping with crisis, narrated by the family dog, Enzo. Enzo has an old soul and teaches us a lot about being human. One of the many subjects he talks about is loneliness. Enzo says, “Did he understand as those interminable minutes ticked by, that being alone is not the same as being lonely? That being alone is a neutral state…something that exists only in the mind, not in the world, and, like a virus, is unable to survive without a living host?’ This quote makes me think about the difference between being lonely and being alone and how we often don’t create a distinction. You can be alone in a remote cabin in the woods, away from people, and still be at peace with yourself in the solitude. Some of us are lonely and some of us are very much in need of solitude.
Since our culture has a high divorce rate, wives often outlive their husbands, and society promotes self-sufficiency and independence, many of us are likely to be alone at some point in our lives. Most of us would assume that the elderly are the loneliest, but often it is the young people who feel the most alone. Some elderly people are alone, but lead happy lives, because they have developed a healthy way of life that helps them feel more at ease being alone. They have found ways to keep their minds busy and enjoy the peace and quiet of a less active household. The young, however, are often bored and restless for no definitive reason. It they are not included in activities of their peers, their self-esteem suffers, and they can feel isolated. They often make unhealthy choices that eliminate social contact or productivity.
No matter the age, everyone feels lonely some time in his or her life. It may be self-imposed or the result of any number of reasons. Only you can do something about it. If it’s hurting you, try to take the responsibility and reach out to others. If not, you can end up focusing on the unconstructive cycle you are caught in. What can you do to help yourself? Think about a support group, where everyone shares in each other’s story. This, or any other type of small group, can be healing in a time of loneliness. Try something you have never done before. Maybe it is a cooking class, volunteering your time, or becoming involved in your church or in the community. Reach out to someone else who may be lonely also. It does not matter what you do, just that you do something that moves you gently toward restoring some happiness.
No matter the age, everyone needs solitude at certain points in their life. It means being alone and providing yourself brilliant and ample company. It can be a time of reading, experiencing nature, retreating or being creative. You draw energy from the enjoyment of the quiet. It is refreshing and often helps us feel replenished.
We know the power of positive mental health, so I ask you to contemplate whether you are, in this moment, a person trapped in loneliness or a person in need of solitude? Staying in a place of loneliness suggests negativity, isolation, is harsh and brings with it a sense of punishment and missing out. Solitude suggests positivity, is insightful, cultivates inner growth and a sense of peace and satisfaction. Loneliness depletes the body, mind and spirit. Solitude restores them.
“There is lonely and there is alone time. I have found that both have etched character upon my soul.” Alfa Holden, poet.
Julie Ruchniewicz, BSN, RN
HMA Executive Director