The previous installment of “Loneliness Today” touched on the potential spiritually beneficial aspects of loneliness. It discussed the literary or symbolic place (topos) of the “desert” and cited Simone Weil’s controversial assertion that Christianity seeks a supernatural use for suffering rather than a supernatural cure. This installment will extend these ideas and seek to identify a difference between loneliness, an acutely unpleasant emotional state that one almost never wishes on people, and solitude, a state of “apartness” that can feel much the same as loneliness but has more positive connotations and results.

The fact that loneliness and solitude are separate words at all—and not even etymologically connected, given that loneliness is of Anglo-Saxon origin while solitude comes from Old French[1]–speaks to the non-equivalence of the concepts. Other languages also distinguish between the emotional state of being lonely and the mere fact of not being around others; my second language, Japanese, has a whole array of words for loneliness or aloneness in an emotionally negative sense (sabishii, hitoribocchi, and so forth), a few words with more neutral connotations (kodoku, hitorigurashi), but also the somewhat rarer Chinese-derived words dokkyo and yūjakumi for the kind of solitude one actually enjoys and might seek out.

Interestingly, Latin, the language of the Church, doesn’t make this distinction as neatly. Solitas and solitudo also mean loneliness, and any positive or negative connotation has to be taken from the context. It’s possible that “modern man,” that often-invoked and seldom-defined figure, has a psychological understanding of the difference at which “his” ancestors had not yet arrived. It’s also possible, however, that some languages simply address concepts in different ways, and that people have always more or less known that there is a difference here. Certainly no one believes that going up on a mountain to rethink your life is the same thing as feeling isolated and yearning for companionship.

The loneliness/solitude distinction appears in a sermon from the 20th-century liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich.[2] Tillich was an existentialist-influenced thinker with an extremely lax conception of Christian doctrine. In this 1957 sermon, he treats the two terms as a simple dichotomy—“the pain of being alone” and “the glory of being alone.” I believe this view to be too easy and think it misses important nuances. More psychologically and spiritually subtle, in my opinion, are the words of the eighteenth-century Catholic poet Alexander Pope. His “Ode on Solitude,” written when he was twelve years old, concludes with the verse:

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

Thus unlamented let me die;

Steal from the world, and not a stone

Tell where I lie.[3]

The desire to die unlamented—assuming it’s sincere coming from such a young person—is surely not a desire formed through a clear, easy distinction between positive and negative emotions. The literature of monasticism often shows similar emotional ambivalence. There is something penitential about the “retreat into the desert” from earliest times. We see this in Elijah’s suicidality described in I Kings 19, or the desert-dwelling John the Baptist’s message of repentance and forgiveness. The experience of solitude and contemplation strips out emotional as well as philosophical detritus from the soul.

Unfortunately, such is not the case with the “alone in a crowd” aspect of many of the phenomena that the first six installments of “Loneliness Today” discussed. Indeed, at least in my own experience, it often seems that the psychological and emotional toll that loneliness takes is actually heightened when one is nominally a participant in society. The concept of  “retreat” (and the word’s various meanings are all relevant here) suggests the possibility of a psychological space where solitude can be embraced as life-giving and healthful. There’s no such positive narrative around feeling alone despite regular interaction with others.

A recent New York Times piece talks specifically about the loneliness instantiated by the omnipresent Zoom calls and Google Hangouts chats of the COVID-19 age. Such interactions often feel alienating and exhausting due to their subtle disconnects from the nonverbal aspects of in-person human communication.[4] Something similar could perhaps be said of interactions undertaken without the connective tissue of what Lady Macbeth disparagingly called the “milk of human kindness.”[5] The benefit of solitude is that, if it’s undertaken voluntarily, one can at least expect and plan for the emotional and spiritual difficulties that it will entail. As Weil said, it can be possible to transform such difficulties into something psychologically and religiously beneficial. Not so for unedifying and unfulfilling social participation; the best that can usually be done is to treat such an experience as a penance and hope that it will eventually be lifted.

Because of my academic background, I often turn to literature to help me understand emotional experiences, especially fairly subtle ones like the solitude/loneliness distinction. The literature that I was taught how to interpret in college is Japanese, a language that is characterized by its very fine distinctions about mood, tone, and temperament. As mentioned above, the Japanese language has a variety of shades of meaning surrounding these concepts. Perhaps some of the words I listed earlier could be compared to the English “lonesome.” This word has a mostly negative sense (as in the old country-western song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) but can also take on an oddly piquant or nostalgic flavor depending upon how it is used. Medieval Japanese texts like “An Account of My Hut” or the Tale of the Heike discuss isolation extensively, especially in a religious context. These texts use certain set phrases like “ten-foot-square hut” and “deer’s cry” to describe sensory feelings associated with loneliness or solitude. This is alongside, or sometimes even instead of, the actual words for the emotions.

However, after a certain point the set phrases are just set phrases, just words. The difference between describing emotion and evoking it is an old topic of discussion in world literature, and the line that one draws between the two varies from person to person. Neither do I always “feel seen,” as the currently fashionable term is, by the passage in I Kings 19 that I mentioned in the previous installment, in which Elijah, pursued by his enemies and desiring death, nevertheless makes his way to Mount Horeb to experience God’s theophany. Again, though, I keep coming back to it, because it demonstrates that the pain and the joy of being alone are not always as separate as they might seem.


[1] Etymologies from the Oxford English Dictionary.

[2] The sermon is the first of those collected in Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963).

[3] Alexander Pope, Pope: Poems, ed. Claude Rawson (New York/London/Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 11.

[4] Kate Murphy, “Why Zoom Is Terrible,” New York Times, April 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html.

[5] Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5.

Image: Detail from “Kenreimon-in at Jakkо̄-in” by Mizuno Toshikata. Illustration of a scene in The Tale of the Heike featuring a solitary nun.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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