Significantly alone

Solitary American RobinThe elderly widower knocked on my kitchen door and then, in the way of neighbors in this rural community, started to let himself in. I forestalled him, not in the mood for visitors, and he produced a card with a photo of his recently deceased wife and handed it to me. I live in a Catholic area of The Netherlands and it is traditional to present everyone who sent condolences with a ‘prayer card’. I accepted the card and repeated my condolences. He murmured his thanks and then cleared his throat. “Now we’re in the same boat,” he said awkwardly. “Alone and lonely.”

I suppressed a smile and answered as gently but decisively as possible. “I’m sorry you feel lonely now, I’m sure you miss your wife. I don’t feel lonely, I choose to live alone.” I said goodbye and closed the door firmly.

Like many people of my age, who have been through much in their lives, I do choose to live alone and I enjoy my solitude. I won’t go into the validity of the choice. I do believe that learning to have a meaningful life with a partner is one of the most challenging and rewarding things one can experience in a lifetime. However, it has not been my path, for many reasons. Most of which I go into in my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork: Delivering the Soul. I have learned to live alone and am grateful for this gift.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. How many people do you know who are able to be alone for any period of time? We all find ways to escape being alone and I’m no exception.

I often catch myself holding a conversation with another person in my head. In the past, it was often my mother. I would point out features in the Dutch landscape to her, imagining that she had come over from the States for a visit. After her death in 2008, other people appeared in my imaginary conversations: often someone I would like to see or someone I was planning to see.

I tried the antidote prescribed by many healers and spiritual teachers: mindfulness and/or meditation to still the mind. My mind became much quieter, but the imaginary conversations popped up every time I wasn’t paying attention.

Gradually, I started realizing that this chatter in my head was a way to avoid the pang of loneliness. I needed to face this feeling, to let myself experience what it was I was avoiding. This is an extremely important step. Avoiding pain pulls one further and further into escapist behavior. Honoring the pain, honoring the unwanted and unloved parts of your personality, is the road towards wholeness.

And so, without anyone around who might (for whatever reason) try to alleviate my pain, I moved past the feeling of being bored, sleepy, hungry, or thirsty. I accepted the deadly silence around me. And, when I had entered the place of pain, I accepted the full brunt of feeling lonely, unloved, and unwanted. It hurt. Definitely. But, once I allowed myself to acknowledge the hurt feeling, the intensity of it subsided.

The next step is more difficult to describe. It has to do with becoming aware of the presence of an intrinsic ‘self’ that is always there but only sensed if we open up to it. People use different words for it. Some people will feel comfortable with the word Soul. Others may feel awkward with the word because it has had so many connotations in different traditions. It’s the part of us that was there when we were born and will be with us when we die. That essence of us that is whole and integrated.

So now, when I feel the urge to talk to an invisible someone, I call up the image of my whole, integrated, undivided self and talk to her. You could say I’m talking to myself. I am, in a sense. The warmth of feeling heard, acknowledged, and loved floods me and I lose the need to chatter.

It is a crucial step. Not only to feeling at peace with being alone, but feeling the absolute richness of this solitude. I wish it to all who are, by choice or by mishap, spending time alone.

16 Comments:

  1. Mary Lou Gillette

    Thank you for sharing your significantly insightful self!

  2. Maddi, sometimes I feel as though you’ve almost scaled Everest and I’m standing at the bottom, telling myself that I must find the strength and courage to begin. Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Thank you, Sabine! We all are exactly where we should be. Not higher or further than the other. But when I find tidbits of wisdom along the way, I do love to share them, to light someone else’s path.

  3. This insight really hit the mark with me. For way to many years (living alone) I didn’t/couldn’t admit that I was, in fact, lonely. There was enough activity in my life that I was not aware of the fact that there was a missing element. After I retired in 2005, there was no more job to take up a HUGE part of my day. As time has passed, I began to realize that I was spending way to much time alone – I do chat with neighbors in my building, but make no effort to make friends with the others in our condo community. My escape is reading because then my mind is focused on my book it doesn’t allow me to think about what is NOT going on in my life. Thank you for helping me be able to recognize and admit this.

    • Yes, Anne, I do recognize the reading. I grew up as a lonely child (which I describe in my book) and reading was one of my escapes. It’s still a beloved – and rewarding – habit, but I try to carefully examine my motives for reading. Do I pick up a book so as not to feel bored and lonely or because I really want to read? Thank you for sharing this!

  4. Once again, Maddi, you have caused me to look inside myself. I recall when I was contemplating divorce, a friend warned me I was likely to be very lonely. I replied: “If I’m going to be lonely, then I’d prefer to be alone.” These many years later I know I made the right choice.

  5. Thanks for sharing these thought provoking words that hit very close to home. The older I get, the more comfortable and at peace with myself I feel. Loving oneself unconditionally is the key to being happy, at peace with oneself, never feeling alone and leading a self-fulfilling life.

  6. Ah Madeleine, she who really sees :)!! How did you know I was thinking these very thoughts just now? Of what I need to do, and how I put it off, and how it needs to be done int he end regardless …… xx

  7. Maddi, thanks so much for this wonderful post. I am another one of us who lives alone and enjoys it. The time to read, to think, to watch nature live and on camera, and then to choose to engage with the world (friends, the arts, theater, classes and so forth). Not a perfect life but one I am reasonably content with. Thinking too about Cheryl’s comment – I found I was less lonely after my divorce, more comfortable with myself and able to build a new life with people and activities that expanded beyond what was previous.

  8. Even though I do live with a partner, much of what you write I recognize. There is an inner loneliness that works in much the same way, including the way to look at it that you describe! Even being able to share the deeper things inside me with someone else, leaves a part that stays alone – I find it hard to find the words to describe this, but this comes nearest to what I feel at the moment.
    thank you for this post, Madeleine!

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