“In total silence, the mind comes upon the eternal” J. Krishnamurti. Loneliness is a universal feeling that has been felt and avoided by probably every human being at some point in their lifespan. Some might occasionally turn towards and embrace this feeling, and others may try to escape through the countless distractions offered by this modern world. While the feeling of loneliness, emptiness, or uncertainty may be frightening or painful for most individuals, for some, they might see loneliness as an opportunity to connect deeply to themselves, search for spiritual knowledge, or gain creative insight. At the same time, the word loneliness has a negative connotation, which points to this experience as a state of emotional pain that seems to involve less choice. Whereas solitude, which is considered the state of being alone, can have both positive and negative impacts depending on the situation.
While many of us may try to avoid or cover up both feelings, throughout history, many artists, writers, philosophers, spiritual and religious leaders, and other great thinkers sought out this state of loneliness or solitude. Existential philosophy and psychotherapy often involve reflecting upon the meaning of life and our inevitable deaths, which each person must face individually. Conscious reflection upon these serious matters has been known to have a transformative effect on an individual’s psyche, often leading to improved perspective, increased feelings of gratitude, empathy, and deeper meaning in daily life.
It is also possible to feel lonely within a family, group of friends, or in a crowd of people. This experience of loneliness quite often involves being around others, but feeling unseen, misunderstood, or like an outsider. While social and emotional bonds are important and central to the healthy development of an individual, one might also argue that solitude, reflection, and deep contemplation are also valuable. It is not to deny the negative impact that loneliness can have on an individual’s self-esteem, mental and physical health, but rather reframe loneliness into recognizing some benefits. Doing so can lessen the stigma with loneliness and move towards making room in our society to embrace solitude.
The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche wrote about this collective act pathologizing loneliness or solitude, “Already one is ashamed of keeping still; long reflection almost gives people a bad conscience. . . .Living in a constant chase after gain compels people to expend their spirit to the point of exhaustion. . . . Virtue has come to consist of doing something in less time than someone else. Hours in which honesty is permitted have become rare.” (Nietzsche, Gay Science, 2001 pp. 183-184) These insights reveal how changing societal values, magnified by the exponential increase in technology, has begun to elevate values efficiency, busyness, and productivity overvalues solitude, contemplation, reflection, and thinking deeply.