Recycling Loneliness

I think I have been a “loner” since birth.  My father baptized me and then disappeared into the chaos of World War II, never to return. My mother retreated into unmitigated grief for the rest of her life, even though she re-married and had four additional children. Those children formed a tight pact which unintentionally excluded me – or maybe I made a  pact that excluded them.

Anyway the pattern was set, aided and abetted by my introverted personality style, for my pursuing a loner’s internal lifestyle. On the outside I was a teacher, a non-profit director,  a  volunteer, a successful writer, and even the spiritual formation director of a large congregation. All of these roles kept me active and fulfilled, but did not change my internal aloneness – and perhaps, aloofness.

Now I have been sidelined into an experience of loneliness by this awful pandemic, specifically because of health concerns that could make COVID-19 dangerous. For me this has been intensified by my husband’s recent death which has deprived me not only of his presence and companionship, but also of the intense occupation of caregiving. 

Since I’m an introvert, being alone rarely means being lonely. But last week I sat down and counted the number of minutes I had spent in face-to-face contact with someone: 

  • 90 seconds of interaction from the distance of several feet with the person who delivered my groceries
  • about 7 minutes in the bank
  • about 30 seconds in the drive-through lane of a pharmacy as I interacted with the pharmacy tech
  • and, blessedly, about 2 minutes with two of my grandchildren as they came to pick up garbage bags full of pop cans to recycle.
  • In addition I spent 90 minutes in a Zoom call with my spiritual formation group and 20 in conversation during a haircut

That adds up to about 120 minutes of face-t0-face interaction with others in 7 days.  I was astonished! Of course, I’ve had several interactions by phone or by e-mail. But my time spent face-to-face with another person has been severely limited – as it has for millions of people.

I have pondered this “aloneness” now for days.  I rarely am at a loss of what to do with myself. I rarely feel lonely.  I miss Fred dreadfully, especially as a partner in conversation, but I never have really thought of myself as missing face-to-face companionship until this week. And yet, with some amount of dread, I realized, that nothing can be done about this until we are victorious over the pandemic.  How do we live with the aloneness?

And then  I read a quote in Sojourner from Wes Granberg-Michaelson’s latest book,  Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage: 

“For ages, those living as monks, cloistered nuns, hermits and wandering pilgrims have mastered the art of turning loneliness into solitude, creating a real presence to themselves and to God. These spiritual explorers were often confined – as many of us are now – into narrow spaces, yet pilgrimage to the authentic explores an interior landscape.”

How do we master the art of turning loneliness to solitude First, how do we deal with loneliness? We can recognize it and face it. But as Wes-Granberg Michaelson says, we can also turn being alone into solitude. So, you ask, what’s the difference? Here is one distinction: loneliness is a feeling of discontent, of being alone in the world, isolated even if people are all around you. Solitude is refreshing and self-renewing. It is the state of being alone without being lonely.

Turning Loneliness into Solitude

So, I’m seeing that experiencing solitude rather than loneliness is a choice. We have to choose to leave the the pain and sadness of loneliness and step into possibilities of the restoration and rejuvenation. It’s like turning off a busy highway onto a quiet country road, a space of  beauty and possibilities.

I imagine that everyone’s experiences during a time of solitude are different. And I suppose that solitude can even look (and feel) like wasting time. But it not time wasted; it is time found and joyfully appreciated.

I find that I move out of loneliness and into solitude when I care for my plants or when I watch the birds flitting around the bare branches of a tree in full view from my recliner.  I can be happy in solitude without setting foot outside. Sometimes I sit and gaze at my well-loved wall hangings: a piece of colorful abstract art that I borrowed from the library off and on  for years until I won a silent auction and proudly brought it home. Three paintings by the same artist of a serenely green pastoral landscape, populated by trees and cows and clouds and ducks on a pond. A wooden chessboard carefully crafted and beautifully stained by a friend of Fred’s. A new striking and brilliantly colored painting I “commissioned” from a local artist to illustrate/interpret Psalm 23:6 which I read during the scattering of  Fred’s ashes:  “Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life . I’m back home in the house of God for the rest of my life.”

I spend many hours of solitude reading.  This week it is Barack Obama’s first volume about his life in service to his country. A Promised Land is filled with memories, family stories, musings about life as a black man, revelations about his spiritual and emotional growth – along with an intimate record of his life in politics. But solitude prompts this story of a life well-lived to offer many moments of self-examination: How do I make decisions? Am I willing to forgive quickly and not prolong an issue? How would I deal with public criticism or resentment or attack? How can I express compassion and understanding in all of my interactions with people?

Since being struck by Granberg-Michaelson’s quote, I have recycled many lonely moments into solitude by seeking “real presence” to myself and to God.  I invite God into my sorrow and my tears, knowing that he experienced both. I moan about the “dark winter” of 2020 and plead for his blessing on the efforts to end COVID-19 and the horrific influence of Donald Trump. I reflect with gratitude on the gifts and prayers from my friends. I struggle with God to understand my role for my life these days. And I pour my thoughts into writing.

And now my solitude is broken. The doorbell is ringing.  Amazon Prime has just delivered a copy Without Oars, Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage – a Christmas gift from a friend!  Becoming a “spiritual explorer” just got even more exciting.

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1 Response to Recycling Loneliness

  1. MaryAnn Hayden says:

    Honest, beautiful, and challenging. Thanks, Karen.

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