What’s the distinction between loneliness and being alone—between a kind of “solitary confinement” and sacred solitude with God?
If you search for loneliness on the Internet, you’ll get everything from articles about the basic need for social connection and interaction to warnings about how being lonely can increase the chance of illness. While inclusion is often the goal, exclusion seems to be very common.
The term lonely hints at a state of being that is remote from everything else. The word is defined as a lack of companionship, the depressing feeling of helplessness, and the hazy notion that the basic fact of the human condition is living in solitude. Loneliness brings with it a feeling of distance, a sense of being thrown into a world without compassion and cohesion. The whole world seems as if it’s a family, and we’re not a part of it. If we subscribe to a material, mortal concept of life, nothing feels permanently connected; things seem to be in constant competition for attention and people are labelled as winners and losers. This point of view brings with it many forms of loneliness.
Being alone, on the other hand, is different. When I am alone, I find I have an opportunity to practice the discipline to “know thyself.” When I am on my own, I am often pushed to learn more about my true sense of spiritual individuality. I am confronted by an opportunity to accept the God-given good that never leaves us comfortless and to let this realization take deeper root. I learn to express more gratitude and humility for the “little” things. This, in turn, deepens my sense of benevolence and compassion, and it prompts me to bring blessings to others. Being alone is an important condition for me to get to know God truly and feel the true connection with Love and Love’s whole creation.
A spiritual idea is never alone. I love the assurance I receive in prayer that man, as the image and likeness of divine Love, Spirit, can never be removed from the wondrous whole of spiritual creation and can never be cut off from his or her intelligent source. Spirit fills all space since God is All-in-all. And creation was, is, and always will be Spirit’s, Mind’s, supplying infinite self-knowledge and endless joy. Since Love, God, is the cause of creation, life is all about the circulation and unfoldment of love. It is impossible to keep Love out of its own creation and block Love from being expressed.
At three points in my life, I faced loneliness in different forms and learned valuable lessons about being alone that continue to bless me.
The first time I truly lived on my own was during a research trip on invitation from the Italian government. I was granted a generous fellowship at the University of Bologna and had a small apartment in the center of the city. This experience was new, exciting, and scary, and as the days progressed, my research thrived and my knowledge of my surroundings increased. Despite this growth, my loneliness constantly increased. It was my dad who pointed out to me that being “lonely” and feeling “alone” are two different concepts. He encouraged me to explore what being “alone” really means. I did, reluctantly at first, and ended up discovering the grandeur and possibilities of my experience. I went on inspiring trips to historic sites, met wonderful people, appreciated countless treats at little cafes, and took strolls to window-shop. When the two-month period came to a conclusion, I had wonderful memories and had finished my research project.
When I am alone, I find I have an opportunity to practice the discipline to "know thyself."
In the second instance, a debilitating back injury had made it impossible for me to move even slightly. The only thing I could do was lie still and pray. I had all the help that I could want from my family in seeking and finding my healing through Christian Science treatment. Our apartment is spacious and during one particularly difficult morning, all family members were out of range and it felt like the telephone was a million miles away in the next room. The Christian Science practitioner I was praying with at the time had asked me this truly challenging question: If I was willing to admit this spiritual fact to be true—that “the realm of the real is Spirit” (Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 277 )—was I willing to let go of any claim of a material life, a life separate from God?
That was the question in front of me as spiritual sense and material sense seemed to be “fighting it out.” In this very dark moment, I felt like the loneliest person on the planet. I called out to my husband as loudly as I could, but he couldn’t hear me and didn’t respond, and the realization struck me that this is what a feeling of mortality included—separated lives, unable to communicate even to others the pain and despair we might be facing.
Much later on I read this quote from Aldous Huxley summarizing my feelings: “In spite of language, in spite of intelligence and intuition and sympathy, one can never really communicate anything to anybody. The essential substance of every thought and feeling remains incommunicable, locked up in the impenetrable strong-room of the individual soul and body. Our life is a sentence of perpetual solitary confinement.”
This insight into the nature of mortality—without sugarcoating or avoiding it—was crucial to my progress. I came face to face with the human condition, and yet saw that mortality wasn’t a part of my true being. I was immortal, spiritual. How comforting. I let go of even the desire to find human help or the desire to communicate to others how helpless I felt and how terrible everything seemed to be.
The door of my thought opened to spiritual intuition, helping me to say “yes” to the Christian Science practitioner’s question. Yes, I was willing to let go of any claim to a mortal, material life. This was the turning point for me. The healing unfolded beautifully as if a spell had been broken, and the same day I was up again for the first time in a week. The complete healing that followed was quick and permanent.
I was immortal, spiritual. How comforting.
In the third instance, I was preparing for a long workday when I suddenly felt as though I was by myself, lonely, that I was walking through my days helping people without getting anything in return. This thought that I should be sad was such a blunt temptation that I sat down to deal with it through prayer and replace it with gratitude. I claimed God, Love, as the only law of my being. I claimed unselfishness and humility as being the main qualities that comprise who I am. I actively endeavoured to not add one more heavy thought to the mass of fears and doubts in the world. I prayed until I felt confident I could walk out the door with the expectancy of God’s presence in my daily life and work.
As I walked toward my workplace on a small historic cobblestone road, a motorcyclist slowly passed by, stopped, turned around, took off his helmet, and complimented me. He said that I seemed like one of those people who did not throw my problems into my surroundings, making everyone feel bad, but instead sorted things out with my own conscience. After sharing these thoughts, the man drove off. Wow. Imagine a complete stranger saying something like that! This peculiar incident certainly made my day and taught me something valuable about the importance and impact of prayer and unselfishness.
In all three of these instances, loneliness was challenged by humbly acknowledging the supremacy of God and being unwilling to let the human mind play out its games of exclusion, detachment, and isolation. I feel that self-abnegation and unselfed love are the quickest means to move from feeling excluded to feeling the divine inclusion of Spirit. It is as if our true existence is meant to be pure love—and we realize this fact best when we put love into action. The law of Love reveals and sustains our true being, and under this law, everyone is equally blessed.
Christ Jesus was, one could argue, the most solitary person on the planet in his days—the first Christian in his time—misunderstood, neglected by many, and downplayed for his healing work. Although we know he did have a group of disciples, he was often by himself, but the Bible doesn’t mention that he was lonely. His “oneness with the Father” (Science and Health, p. 18 ) was the open secret of his being.
I believe that the reason for happiness and fulfillment can be found in this astonishing counsel of his: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29, 30 ). It explains that unselfishness is the way to live a life of fulfillment and purpose. The heaviness and downward pull of self-centered thinking is not only eased, but then eliminated when exposed to the shining presence of spiritual consecration.
So what is the yoke Christ Jesus speaks about? I wonder whether he is talking about a strict yet joyful discipline of obedient acceptance that Spirit, Love, is All-in-all and man is the perfect and satisfied reflection of Love’s being, at one with God, with good. Man is not absorbed in the allness of God (see Science and Health, p. 259 ), but reflects the richness of Life without interruption in substance, power, control, and strength.
Loneliness, or a feeling of “solitary confinement,” will dissipate as we see how deeply God cares for all of us. Love’s ideas are truly one family. And sacred solitude will illumine our sweet oneness with Love.