Our generation has seen some spectacular demonstrations of courage, physical endurance and emotional resilience in some of the most lonely places on earth.
One cannot but be impressed by the emotional fortitude of people such as Francis Chichester, Kaye Cottee or Jesse Martin who sailed their small craft around the world single-handedly. Apart from the sailing and navigational skills required to pilot their craft across the seas, was the challenge of being alone, totally alone, in the vast empty spaces of the ocean, for a prolonged period of time. Their greatest enemy was not really the sea but loneliness. They were on their own!
But perhaps the most outstanding of all was an Apollo 11 astronaut, Michael Collins, alone in his small mother craft “Columbia” orbiting the moon while his colleagues (Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin) were exploring the moon’s surface.
1 Worst of all were the periods of time he was behind the moon, in total darkness, and out of communication with earth base.
One cannot conceive how frightening such a situation could be – cut off from all other human contact, totally alone in a small space capsule in a vast, dark, empty space. Is this absolute loneliness?
I am indebted to theologian Paul Tillich
for the insight which differentiates solitude from loneliness.
2 Tillich points out that loneliness ….. is a matter of being painfully alone while solitude … is a matter of being alone, joyfully.
In other words, loneliness is not a matter of physical isolation or alone-ness. One person may feel utterly lonely in the midst of a crowded room, while another may be quite content with his/herself without another human being in sight. There is no-more-lonely place than being in an exam room, surrounded by others, yet completely isolated from them. Silence brings its own sense of being alone. Loneliness or solitude are not physically induced states but rather describe inner states of mind or soul.
There have been many times when I have been totally alone: in a small boat miles from shore; on top of a mountain looking down on the rest of the world; on an isolated beach with no other human within sight; or on a bush track in a remote tropical island. In each of these situations I have been physically alone, yet quite content with myself, enjoying the experience of “being there”, surrounded by nature’s beautiful space. At such times I do not think necessarily deep thoughts, or explore deep philosophical questions of existence, but simply rest content at “being”. This is solitude, simply enjoying one’s existence just as it is!
Perhaps the perfect example of solitude is the description of Jesus, being alone on a mountain, in communion with himself and his God. The record simply states, “and he was there, alone”, in perfect solitude.
3 Sometimes in the solitude I may pause to reflect how insignificant a creature I am, when surrounded by a vast empty space.
At such times I am humbled by a reminder of my human finitude, and caused to wonder that the Creator of such vast space should have any concerns for me, as Charlie Brown put it, “little ol’ me”. The blessing of solitude is that it forces you back onto your own inner resources to that which is primary and fundamental to your existence as a person. There are times when we need to be alone, to look into the mirror of our own soul, and see ourselves as we really are.
1 Tuesday, 22 July, 1969 (Australian time) as reported by The Courier Mail. 2 Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now.