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The Pandemic of 2020 has forced many of us to maintain social distancing as we determine what it means to be alone and embrace our solitude.

Many agree that being alone is an unnatural state. People have an innate tendency to seek out other people because human connection is one of the joys of being human. We connect for safety, but also as a means of developing meaningful and fulfilling relationships. Science has demonstrated that being connected to others reduces anxiety and improves overall health and longevity.

Still, there have always been individuals who flourish in the ecstasy of solitude, without the sustenance of human companionship. Some groups thrive during periods of forced isolation. According to writer Courtney Dabney, it took a global pandemic for Generation X to receive the recognition they deserve:

Gen X folks can actually thrive on solitude and enjoy their downtime, due to our advanced tolerance for boredom. We spent untold hours alone in our homes after school, fending for ourselves, living off Ding-Dongs and macaroni and cheese, as the first generation of latchkey kids.

Generation X’ers (1965-1978) grew up during a phase of extreme disharmony in the family unit, including an unprecedented rate of divorce and broken homes, latchkey kids fending for themselves, homelessness, grandparents raising grandchildren, and the conspicuous absence of the father. Nonetheless, Dabney concludes that Generation X possesses a “remarkable resilience” and “ability to entertain ourselves for hours on end” but equally “requires a regular dose of social isolation to recharge their batteries.”

Opportunity to Renew

We choose solitude when overwhelmed by life’s pressures. Solitude gives us the opportunity to take control, rather than to respond to external stimuli. As we embrace our solitude, we have an opportunity to renew, restore, and reenergize both mind and body. Solitude is a time to search for inner truth and discover our meaning of spiritually. We already possess the tools to reach this higher plane, attainable by engaging in such acts as creativity, walking in the woods, reading, prayer and meditation.

Some choose to be alone as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment. Consider the grouping of ascetics, monks, and holy men who chant, pray, and meditate in solitude. They converse only with their God, reaching exquisite states of ecstasy as distinguished by St. Teresa of Ávila in her four stages of mystical prayer, describing this Roman Catholic mystical experience in terms of three categories. ‘Ecstasy’ appears gradually or quietly. ‘Rapture’ is an experience of the same content with a violent and sudden onset. Lastly, the ‘flight of the soul’ is rapture with the specific content of an out-of-body experience. These alternative trance states are believed to be the result of repetitive prayer and meditation, realized during periods of solitude.

Artists Rembrandt and Van Gogh lived in poverty and in self-imposed solitude throughout their lifetimes, deprived of precious relationships that others relished. Still, they achieved self-actualization and levels of creativity that only a small group of humans ever attain. Creativity aside, Psychology Today writer Hara Estroff Marano noted additional facets of solitude:

Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.

Loneliness

Everyone needs solitude, some more and some less, but the direct opposite of solitude is loneliness, draped in a state of toxic shame, discontent, and estrangement. Writer Hara Estroff Marano aptly described this condition:

Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely—perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.

Loneliness is a cruel punishment separating us from others. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, set in 17th century Boston, Hester Prynne is made to wear rags of scarlet cloth, publicly displaying her “badge of shame.”  Hester and her daughter Pearl, born out of wedlock, are ostracized from the puritan community because Hester refuses to reveal her lover’s identity. In this 1850 novel, Hester’s forced solitude brings out tremendous courage in the face of ostracism and condemnation.

Chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by about 20%, according to Chicago University Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neurocience, John T. Cacioppo. His book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, claims that the stress hormones resulting from feeling socially isolated can have as serious an impact on the human body as smoking or morbid obesity.

Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a “minister of loneliness” to tackle the social and health issues caused by social isolation, viewing it as a public health crisis. According to her press release, appointing a minister for loneliness is the first of several recommendations that she hopes to implement from the report:

For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by careers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.

With a population of 66 million people co-existing on an island smaller than the state of Michigan, the U.K. reports about 9 million people feeling lonely “often or always.” One study showed about 200,000 elderly people in the U.K. had not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in over a month.

The American Psychological Association noted that up to 40 percent of Americans over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. Because of the coronavirus disease, social isolation in nursing homes, VA hospitals, and other confined environments has increased depression, weight loss and other forms of physical deterioration, especially for Alzheimer’s patients, who require more help than understaffed centers can provide.

Fortunately, although so many suffer from the cloak of loneliness, solitude allows us the opportunity to find our center, realize our true selves and discover an inner peace and tranquility that is among our most priceless of possessions. Solitude helps us to perceive the world through another perspective, ultimately placing us in control as we embrace our solitude.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. jungle@epix.net

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