Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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