A View from the Hill: Embrace being alone, try not to be lonely

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It’s one thing to choose to be alone for an extended period of time – a solo through-hike on the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, for example, or a 6-month nonstop sail around the world with only oneself for a companion. 

It’s quite another to have isolation thrust upon you suddenly, as much of the world is experiencing now.

In the first instance, you have years to prepare yourself for the solitude and loneliness that will surround you during your adventure. You can learn from others who have gone before you. You can psychologically prepare yourself for what is coming, perhaps with the help of a therapist. And you can always back out.

In the second instance, you must suddenly adapt and adjust on the fly. And there’s no backing out.

Perhaps there is something to learn from those who have been there, either by choice or fate.

Right now, millions of single people around the world are finding themselves alone as they shelter in place. They are isolated from much of the human contact to which they are accustomed – family, colleagues, friends. Despite all the digital opportunities to get together, they may feel lonely.

But loneliness and solitude are not the same thing, writes Hara Mariano in Psychology Today.

“Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely – perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness.

“Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.”

The late Dodge Morgan, when he lived in Cape Elizabeth, decided to sail around the world, nonstop, alone, as fast as he could in a 60-foot boat named American Promise. It took him 153 days and at the time broke all records for such a voyage.

During the trip, he came to understand the difference between loneliness and solitude.

“I miss the confusion and the unpredictability of the human anthill, to walk on a street crowded by people to whom you relate only by being one among them,” he wrote in his book, “The Voyage of American Promise.” This is solitude, a time of reflection on the human condition.

His next thought drips with loneliness: “But to be with family, oh, one day would never be enough. And with friends to talk the sun into setting and to cheer a life that is too short and passing fast.”

Solo sailor Dee Caffari, who was at sea alone for 178 days, at the end of March shared some advice with the Canadian Broadcasting Company for those isolated while they shelter in place alone.

On her voyage, she at first sought what turned out to be too much solitude, then decided that weekly check-ins with her on-shore team offered the contact she needed with the solitude required to get the job done.

“As mindful humans, we know we need to be physically isolated right now,” she told the Guardian newspaper, “but that doesn’t mean we have to be mentally isolated. Human contact and support are important at all times, but particularly in times of crisis and stress. Now, more than ever, we need to look out for each other.”

She said it was equally important for those on the shore “to realize that I was of a sane state of mind. I was happy. I was content, I was healthy and things were going well.”

A combination of solitude, when she could concentrate on her work and think without interruption, and keeping in touch got her through. That, and not surrounding herself with negativity, she said. 

For the past year, I’ve been dealing with a devastating loss. With guidance, I used a combination of solitude and controlled exposure to friends and family to get through. Many days I didn’t want to see anyone. I needed to think and ponder and try to understand my new situation. That time in seclusion gave me strength.

Other days, I felt nutty with loneliness, so I reached out. I think the bouts of solitude made friends and family nervous. The calls and visits settled them – and me – down.

As with any behavior, it’s the extremes that are dangerous. Strike a balance. Stay well and keep in touch.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.