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On Being Alone

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 156 - March 2009

When I watch people babbling about trivia into their mobile phones on trains, buses, in queues and waiting rooms, I wonder whether they do it simply in order to feel connected and un-alone. From what I am forced to overhear, their messages are neither urgent nor meaningful. Perhaps isolation and loneliness, those major problems of modern city life, seem easiest to fend off with electronic devices. But, ironically, people reading text messages on their mobiles while listening to non-stop music, wrapped up with glazed eyes in some virtual reality, look more isolated than the rest of us.

Loneliness versus Solitude

Yet there is nothing wrong with being alone. It is part of finally growing up (at any age). Besides, loneliness and solitude are completely different. Loneliness is a sad, scary experience, negative in every respect. On the other hand, occasional voluntary solitude acts as a positive, peaceful refuge from noise and hassle, an instant respite that nourishes our inner life and, oddly enough, protects us from being lonely. The lonely person feels separated from everybody else by a massive invisible wall, even when he or she is among people. Indeed, the worst scenario is to feel lonely when being with a loved person, as if you were not speaking the same language or living on the same planet.

A sense of loneliness often starts early in life, when a child feels 'different' from the others who promptly pick up the cue and act accordingly, sometimes with the surprising cruelty of small children. Being excluded hurts as much at the age of four as at 40. We are social beings, and at least occasionally, need to be mirrored and reassured by our peers. According to the Canadian psychologist Eric Berne, we all need stroking; without it, symbolically speaking, our spine will wither away. Hence the painful conflict of the lonely individual – on the one hand there is the great longing to be accepted, on the other the fear of being rejected, just like in the past. Normally the fear is the stronger, and the wall of isolation grows a little thicker.

Loneliness, like poverty, doesn't come from God, from outer space or from any other external source. Over the years I have been observing how several clients of mine were actually causing the loneliness they were complaining about. One of them, a young, attractive flight attendant working at a London airport repeatedly claimed that her colleagues were nice and polite but remote, unwilling to make friends with her. One day, describing her daily routine, she told me that she normally had breakfast in the canteen, where her colleagues always ate together, while she would sit at a small table behind a pillar. In the coach, which took the crew to their next flying job, she also had a favourite seat, a single perch behind the driver. At this stage for an irreverent moment I wondered whether she'd actually prefer to travel on the aircraft's wings, but instead I only asked how she expected anyone to join her on her single seats, and indeed wasn't she giving the impression of being aloof and unfriendly? This idea amazed her. She even objected to it, but not for long.

Another, more mature client, who enjoyed financial security and had many acquaintances, lived on her own and complained bitterly about not belonging to any group or community. Yes, she did receive invitations – to sing in a choir, to run a reading circle, to join a dance group, but she turned them all down. Why, since she had a good voice and loved reading and dancing? Because she felt sure that behind the invitations there was nothing but pity for her lonely state, and she was too proud to go along with that. Clearly, own goals are not limited to the football field.

These two stories are good examples of the DIY origin of loneliness. Its antidote is the realization that life is a network of countless connections, and that if we acknowledge the shared factors of existence, the atmosphere and temperature of our relationships will immediately improve, for clearly others need stroking as much as we do. At the most basic level we are all born and we all die, and between those two gates of life our paths are pretty similar – we might just as well be linked by what we share, rather than be separated by our differences.

Solitude at its Best

Solitude is the positive aspect of being alone. We all need it at times, but many people are afraid of it, afraid of its silence and inactivity, which are so different from the noisy, stressful, driven lifestyle they take for granted. That lifestyle only serves the interests of the consumer society, for it stops us from staying still and pondering life's essential values. And, of course, independent thought curbs the appetite for acquisitions. But if we never choose to spend some time alone, how can we observe our inner experiences, or find out who we really are behind our public image, where we are going, or what our life is all about?

Only in solitude can we hear our inner voice, that of instinct and intuition, which is normally wiser and more honest than our everyday perception. That inner voice has the answer to our important questions, and that in turn gives us a sense of independence, for we no longer expect others to hold up a mirror for us and pass judgment on the result. This inner independence even improves our intimate relationships, for we no longer expect – normally in vain – that our partner should make up for all our deficiencies. Above all, we discover how to be alone without feeling in the least bit lonely.

Without solitude there is no creativity. The greatest geniuses – artists, philosophers, inventors, authors – did not produce their masterpieces in company. But you needn't be a genius to enjoy the fruits of solitude. All of us are capable of producing at least one masterpiece: the greatest possible flowering and fulfilment of our own life.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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