Discover the choice of solitude in the face of loneliness.
When our children are young, and through their early years, much of our community often centers around their activities: parents who go to the sports games, the school performances, the birthday celebrations. As children grow and step out into the world, and our own social and professional lives retract, we can be left with a gaping hole we call loneliness.
Mary Pipher, a psychologist who focuses her work on mental health in our culture, women, and trauma, writes about loneliness in her latest book Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age (Bloomsbury Publishing.) As one of the challenges women face as we age, loneliness can be result from many of life’s paths, both from intentional and unintentional choices. “No matter how we structure our lives, most of us will spend more time alone as we grow older,” writes Pipher, “whether that alone time is labeled as loneliness or solitude depends on our attitudes toward it and what we do with it. We older women are likely to experience a mix of loneliness and solitude.”
Loneliness can be a result of loss in our life. Retirement may cause us to lose the social network we had in our professional sphere. Death can claim beloved companions, and loss of mobility or mental health issues can limit how and when we are able to get out and interact with others. We can also be affected by loved ones moving away or relationship turmoil that cuts us off from those we love.
“No matter the reasons why we are lonely, we can always find ways to connect with others,” Pipher insists. She offers these suggestions as a path to “alchemize loneliness into solitude”:
- Get out. Simply getting out of the house and interacting with whoever you come across can be a great step toward feeling more connected with others. Talk to the person in line at the store, show compassion to the young mother at the park. You could also consider who you know that might feel lonely, and reach out to them.
- Build a safety net. Pipher insists that we all need to know that someone cares about our well being, about how our day was. “For many of us,” she writes, “our significant other is a close woman friend.” If we don’t feel we have a web of friendships, we can create them through our church, inviting others to a weekly gathering, or finding an existing group who are involved in something that interests us. Pipher describes this kind of community as creating “‘rituals of survival,’ ways to connect with others and hold our lives in place.”
- Reframe your time alone. If we have been used to spending much of our time with others—extroverts seem to most affected by this—any time alone can result in feeling lonely. Pipher guides us to “reframe the time we spend alone as positive time and find more ways to enjoy ourselves.” We might keep a list of movies we want to see, books we want to read, or creative hobbies we’ve always wanted to try. We might commit to cooking beautiful healthy meals, where the only palate we are trying to please is our own.
Feeling lonely can cause us to contract, leading to further isolation and despair. In addition to discovering ways to create and foster meaningful relationships with others, cultivating a number of endeavors we can enjoy alone can lead us to appreciate our time spent in solitude. Pipher reminds us, “when we use our skills for self-nourishment and to foster deeper connections with the people who remain in our lives, loneliness transforms into solitude.”
For a different perspective, read "Don't Surrender Your Loneliness So Quickly."