Loneliness vs Aloneness

In this crazy season of quarantining, working from home, social distancing, and self-isolating, many people are running into feelings they weren’t expecting. Depression. Anxiety. Anger. Sadness. Frustration. Irritability. Boredom. Longing. Loneliness. The list never ends. A part of these feelings is due to the legitimacy of going through the trauma of a global pandemic and dramatic life changes. 

But another part of these feelings is due to us being forced into solitude. And we have no idea what to do with it. 

Many think loneliness and aloneness are the same thing. And that is true to an extent, in that they both make us feel the same things. The key difference, however, is loneliness is a feeling forced against our will, while aloneness is a state of being willingly chosen.

We are afraid of being alone. It reveals the deepest things about ourselves that we would rather not handle. Our addiction to crowds, busyness, and noise are simply our way of numbing ourselves to the pain and exhaustion our souls feel deep inside. We don’t know what to do with it. We can’t stand letting our minds go to such dark places of disparity. It’s the opposite of our American way of pursuing comfort, success, peace, joy, and celebration in all things. Scientifically, loneliness is our body’s physical response telling us we need human connection, just as hunger tells us we need food. But spiritually, loneliness tells us there is no one else out there who can help us in our guilt, shame, embarrassment, and exhaustion. It brings out the worst in ourselves. No wonder we drown it out.

But here’s the irony:

The pain loneliness makes us feel is actually the beauty of loneliness itself. But the pain of loneliness is only beautiful when we allow ourselves to go there and know what to do with what rises to the surface from our inner selves.

This is why our time of quarantine is so difficult for many of us. Our outputs for crowds, busyness, and noise that numb our inner selves have been cut off, forcing us to come to terms with the difficulties of our inner selves that have always been there, but never acknowledged. Until now.

But helplessly dealing with lonely desperation through binge eating and Netflixing aren’t the only alternatives. Instead of forcefully being lonely, we can choose to be alone. We can learn how to live in solitude.

Solitude is a spiritual discipline where we intentionally choose to be alone so we can come to grips with our deepest selves while inviting God into it. It allows us to take off the mask we put on for everyone around us so our souls can have the space to feel what it needs to feel. It shuts off the constant stream of notifications, streaming services, newsfeeds, and activity to take in the constant stream of God’s presence. Ironically, choosing to be alone in solitude actually reminds us that we are, in fact, not alone. Aloneness heals us so we can enter back into community as our truest selves, with nothing to hide, ready to be vulnerable, knowing God is with us through it all.As Richard Foster says in The Celebration of Discipline, if loneliness brings inner emptiness, solitude brings inner fulfillment.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, what a lot of us are undergoing right now feels like a “forced solitude.” Not only are we forced into isolation from others, but it may feel like we’ve been forced into isolation from God somehow. He seems distant, we seem lost, and his presence that was once thick and active is gone. But may I suggest that it’s not isolation from God you’re feeling. Rather, you might be undergoing what an old saint from long ago calls the “Dark Night of the Soul” (and no, it has nothing to do with Batman).

I guarantee that a lot of us have gone through a dark night of the soul before, but never had the language to describe it—let alone understand it as a good thing for our spiritual formation. I love Richard Foster’s description of this particular grace. He says the dark night involves: 

“a sense of dryness, aloneness, even lostness. Any over dependence on the emotional life is stripped away. The notion, often heard today, that such experiences should be avoided and that we always should live in peace and comfort, joy, and celebration only betrays the fact that much contemporary experience is surface slush. The dark night is one of the ways God brings us into a hush, a stillness so that he may work an inner transformation upon the soul….When God lovingly draws us into a dark night of the soul, there is often a temptation to seek release from it and to blame everyone and everything for our inner dullness…. This is a serious mistake. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see him clearly.” (Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline, 102)

With that in mind, the dark night is not so much a distance from God, but a disorientation from our current way of life to see God anew.

I don’t know about you, but that sums up my last 2 to 3 months. While I want to get out of this season of self-isolation as much as anybody, we cannot miss the potential gift that has been given to us. May we not fear loneliness, but instead, jump on the opportunity to be alone. Give yourself the space your soul has been longing for. Come to God in prayer. Journal how you’re feeling. Ask God to draw near. Have him show you new ways of living and being. Read the Psalms. Find a quiet space in your home that can be your solitude corner. We may be surprised to eventually discover an inner fulfillment that will draw us back into community as a fuller version of ourselves than ever before.

I leave you with the words of the 20th century theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who so aptly put it this way:

“Only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live right in the fellowship.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

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