The very syllables have a forlorn sound. The lack of a strong consonant, the lengthy vowels, there seems to be a moan in the words. As though you have been abandoned by the world. That makes for loneliness. And yet, you can abandon the world, that would change the same state into solitude. Being physically alone does not make for solitude. You need to be mentally alone too. We hear that the present generation of youngsters spend too much time alone, are introverted and not social at all. Nothing of the sort. They are the most social of beings. They are the ones who are in constant communication with their world and the outer world, posting messages, photographs, comments, seeking approval, seeking confrontations, seeking society. They may be sitting alone in a room but they are definitely not solitary.
Solitude is something that is cultivated, something worked at, something achieved. It is the act and the art of being alone. It is finding inner resources which make it a pleasure to be alone, perhaps to think, perhaps to meditate. Guru Nanak was certain that, ‘He who meditates in solitude attains supreme bliss’. And while most religions do believe in congregations for the faithful, they all feel that the attainment of proper devotion requires solitude and meditation. Revelations and enlightenment come only in solitude, and not in the midst of crowds.
Artists too seek solitude to practise their art. Writers, painters, musicians, they can commune with their muses only when they are alone with their work. Though there have been writers who claimed that their concentration was so good they could write in the noise and crowd of a city cross road (Louis L’Amour, writer of Wild West novels comes to mind), that is not the norm.
And yet, solitude, solitary, are words that seem to carry a negative connotation. You are sentenced to solitary confinement. You are punished by being forced to stay in a room alone. Tennessee Williams said that ‘We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!’ making it a fear and a punishment. As though to be solitary is to be lonely.
Loneliness, of course, is the other side of it. You speak of drowning in a ‘well of loneliness’ with its image of a dark depth in which you are suspended alone. And one associates loneliness to being alone, being apart. That is not necessarily true. You are just as likely to be lonely in company.
To be lonely one does not need to be alone. You can be lonely in a crowd, in fact, you are more likely to be lonely in a crowd rather than when you are alone. The loneliness comes from being with people you don’t feel comfortable with, from feeling left out of the general behaviour of the crowd, feeling left out of the conversation, the ‘in’ jokes you do not understand, the ‘do you remember’ you do not share. It is a state of mind rather than a result of circumstances.
There are people who need other human beings around them to feel alive, who need interaction with others to stave off loneliness. Haven’t you seen them, the people who come alive only in company, preferably that of a large number of people? It is as though it is only in the company of others that they feel they are alive. I have sometimes felt that these must be the most lonely of human beings, these people who need a reaffirmation of their lives every moment.
There is also the loneliness of losing someone who matters, whose departure leaves you with a gap in the world and your life that can never be filled. It was Edna St Vincent Millay who said, ‘Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world which I find myself walking around in daytime and falling in at night.’ That kind of loneliness has no end to it. One endures it for ever.
But solitude, in its real sense, a state of being alone whether physically or mentally, can be a benison, a way of recharging your self that has been gnawed at and worn out by the demands of life, by the incessant clamour of the society, by the clutter and mess of the world around you.