Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt in solitude, where we are least alone.” Lord Byron (1788–1824)
In early 2018 then Prime Minister Teresa May launched the first cross-Government strategy to tackle loneliness, “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” she said. Among other initiatives (e.g. the appointment of a Minister of Loneliness), all GPs in the U.K. will be able by 2023 to issue social prescriptions referring lonely patients to community activities and voluntary services.
Then along came COVID last year with its mandate of social distancing. Despite the necessity of sociability to our well-being, we must now do the opposite: practice self-isolation to help contain the threat of the pandemic. Loneliness has been declared an epidemic.
Loneliness and aloneness are not the same states of being. We can feel lonely when we’re not alone, in rooms of people, in our neighbourhoods, even in our relationships. Loneliness is sadness because we lack friends or satisfying connections; aloneness can be interpreted as solitude. To survive the restrictions of COVID — and to thrive in better times — we need to nurture a capacity for solitude.
Solitude is a state of quiet contemplation and examination that we practice without distractions. It’s not just playing games, watching podcasts or doing activities alone; it’s sitting or walking alone with our thoughts. It is a form of self-care. Conversing honestly with our inner self, we may uncover disagreeable behaviours and attitudes. If so, do the work necessary to recalibrate. Initially we aim to use periods of solitude to translate experience and information into self-awareness, self-acceptance and ultimately self-love. The understanding we gain in our private conversations with our isolated self will serve us well in all of our relationships.
Solitude requires discipline. If negative memories arise, for instance, we face them but recognize when to switch the focus and prevent a downward spiral. As an alternative to negativity, fill our minds with compelling ideas or pleasing images.
Like fitness, our capacity for solitude is a muscle we can strengthen over time. Practice solitude. Becoming comfortable with it, our aloneness, may be a positive that endures beyond the pandemic. •
P.S. Some adults in locked-down households seize precious minutes of solitude by hiding in their cars.
P.P.S. If we take solace in solitude, let’s also remember to burst our bubbles when COVID permits to renew the myriad benefits of sociability.