“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
– Henry David Thoreau, American author, poet and historian
“Could you use a hand with dishes?” I asked, setting down my cup of tea.
“If you like,” Mom replied. She had just started filling the kitchen sink with hot water. A quick squirt of soap produced an ample amount of white, frothy bubbles. I grabbed a dishtowel from a drawer and prepared to dry the dishes. Mom began washing – rinsing each plate and utensil before passing it to me. For a time, we just stood quietly, intent upon our tasks.
“You know,” I said, “As far back as I can remember, you’ve always stood patiently here at the sink doing dishes after every meal.” I recalled my father occasionally helping with the drying of dishes but more often than not, he would retire to his favourite recliner to read the paper.
“I noticed years ago,” said Mom, passing me a plate, “that the best way for me to get a few minutes of solitude at the end of the day was to start washing the dishes.”
We all need time alone and whether we find it at the kitchen sink or with a newspaper, we all need space to recharge, regroup and reflect. Sometimes when I’m alone, I feel relaxed and content, while other times I feel anxious and in need of company and conversation. That’s be-cause there’s a vast difference between solitude and loneliness, though the two terms are of-ten mistakenly interchanged. And from the outside, solitude and loneliness look a lot alike – both are characterized by an individual being alone – but that’s where any similarities ends.
I read once that loneliness is marked by a sense of isolation and disconnection, while solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely and can lead to self-awareness and deep introspection. Someone told me once that solitude is the joy of being alone; loneliness is the pain of being alone. I know from my own experience that loneliness can extend beyond physical separation. I think we’ve all had that feeling of being alone in the room filled with people.
Research suggests that profound loneliness can be the result of low self-esteem and a belief that we are not worthy nor deserving of healthy or intimate relationships. It can also result from being valued for shallow external reasons that have little or no connection to the person inside. I have read of celebrities who were adored by the masses yet felt profoundly alone.
Prior to beginning my journey of self-esteem building, I felt lonely much of time. Reflecting back, I can see it was owing to a feeling of rejection and self-loathing dating back to my early childhood. Being painfully shy, I was often reluctant to enter into conversations, and even when I was included, I quickly ran out to things to say. It didn’t take long before I felt excluded and rejected, which further compounded my belief that I had nothing of value to contribute.
Being alone terrified me. Without the diversion of conversation, I was left to steep in my own negative and disempowering thoughts, leaving me even more depressed and lonely.
If you’re lonely, examine your fears and your attitudes. Have you built walls of defence in-stead of bridges? Are you afraid of closeness with others, getting hurt, failing or perhaps the pain of losing someone you love? Are you being busy and making noise – filling your life with activities that spend the hours but buy little contentment? Such activities only serve to distract us from listening to our inner knowing and deepening our inner awareness.
After many years and much practice, I have begun to embrace times of solitude. Practising meditation has helped me develop the ability to enjoy inward quietness. Though I savour companionship, I now find times of solitude enriching and refreshing. I look forward to being alone at times. It has allowed me to gain new perspectives and better understand myself and the world around me. Solitude has become a time for reflection, soul-searching and self-realization.
An impromptu survey among friends produced some interesting responses to the question “How do you enjoy solitude?” Answers included going for a walk, finding a quiet coffee shop, curling up with a good book, taking a bubble bath, enjoying a nice cup of tea and even leaving for work before the rush hour begins. I know my mother would suggest doing the dishes.
I think we can all benefit from some time alone, though we probably differ in the amount of time required. Creating opportunities for solitude and becoming comfortable in our own company can prove hugely beneficial. It renews us for the challenges of life. It allows us to get back into balance, rather than having our lives run by schedules and the demands from others.
“It is only when we silence the blaring sounds of our daily existence,” wrote American author, poet and motivator, K.T. Jong, “that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts.”
Solitude – when understood and embraced – can bring about a calmness and a sense of inner peace. By the time my mother had finished the dishes, cleaned the kitchen and put every-thing away she was ready to visit with my father, who had just finished reading the paper.
Find time to be still. Start tonight by doing the dishes and cherishing the experience.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.