Loneliness is not solitude. Loneliness is born of separation from a loved one, from what one does well or happily, from familiarity and symbols of reassurance, whether cultural or personal. This type of painful emotional separation is clearly involuntary.
Loneliness militates against the apparent core of human personality, which is sociability. Aristotle pronounced the human being a social animal, and ever since, loneliness has accompanied lack of social opportunity, regardless of the culture or beliefs of the person. In short, loneliness is an intrinsic condition of human existence.
What strange personal power, then, when someone can enter this state of “loneliness” voluntarily, like a prisoner of conscience or faith. In such cases, loneliness is not likely to be a deterrent to their determination or will.
But the revolutionary or martyr is not necessarily a healthy psychological model for everyone. We may want to imitate the fervor of belief or the determination, but we instinctively feel that there is an unnatural price to be paid. Loneliness is only part of this price for those without such fervor. Few people can suffer it voluntarily, for it is never a voluntary thing. Loneliness is always imposed by circumstance, already lurking in the subconscious, like an inkling that life is not right, that a flaw tears at the fabric of the universe, and that loneliness is only a manifestation of this bigger hunch. The feeling of desolation or abandonment is the sense that no human consolation is possible, that no insight can rescue the incomprehensible and cruel ways of the world.
Solitude is only just removed from loneliness in physical terms, and that is why the two are often confused. We are all alone, ultimately, and the confusion of th two can persist in most people’s minds until they understand the difference between voluntary and involuntary. Distinguishing the two points to an aspect of solitude that is not clear to those who do not reach a certain spiritual maturity. This matruity signals a readiness and capability to use the fruits of solitude for good ends. It means that an insight and relationship with solitude that is easily confused with the rote and unconscious version (loneliness) is truly a tool for crafting a philosophy of life and a right disposition toward suffering.
This does not mean that the solitary is exempt from suffering, even from loneliness. Many solitaries have good interpersonal relationships: they are siblings, children, parents, spouses, friends. They are ordinary. Solitaries are not exempt from loneliness because they can still experience the emptiness of the universe and the attraction of love at a human level — both at the same time.
An exemplary solitude full of sensitivity and humanity was that of the Zen monk-poet and hermit Ryokan, of whom I have written elsewhere. Ryokan stood at the great threshold of meaning. A hermit, he easily identified with the people he met: a farmer, a passing woodsman, children of the village, an old city friend come to visit. In later life, frail and ill, he lived with a young nun who was a poet and disciple.
We instinctively identify with Ryokan’s honesty, for the solitary is not a cold and indifferent ego but has, through solitude, discovered what is common to all of us.
I sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves —
A lonely hut, a life of reninciation.
The past has faded, things are no longer remembered.
My sleeve is wet with tears.