Loneliness and Isolation-How is Solitude Different?

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Loneliness and Isolation

How often do you feel lonely? Isolated? This past year has been lonelier than usual for many of us. Does solitude look the same?

Did you know…loneliness and isolation began to raise alarms in the mental health world in 2018? In fact, the UK government became so concerned that they created a Loneliness Minister to address the 9M+ adults who expressed their loneliness in a Red Cross survey…as though the government could fix anything involving mental health.

The Covid pandemic seriously heightened the sense of isolation people were already experiencing.

Despite having friends and family within a click on our phones via email or text, one third of adults 45 and older feel lonely.  Research on social media interactions has shown that loneliness is more pervasive in societies and age groups where social media usage is the highest.

Moreover, the health risks are astonishing.

Most of us have known that feeling of being in a crowded room, but feeling lonely. However, how many of us live day after day with that sense of being utterly alone?

Unfortunately, it’s a sad, but interesting phenomenon that when we need to reach out the most, we often choose to remain isolated. Fortunately, there are ways to help ourselves, as Dr. John Townsend wrote. But sometimes, when the feeling has become entrenched, and we have little personal strength, we need the assistance of a counselor. Please ask for help.

Henri Nouwen’s Loneliness

The late Henri J. M. Nouwen, well-known priest, writer, professor, struggled greatly with loneliness and depression throughout his life. Thankfully, he wasn’t ashamed to write about it.

Boredom, resentment, and depression are all sentiments of disconnectedness. They present life to us as a broken connection. They give us a sense of not-belonging. In interpersonal relations, this disconnectedness is experienced as loneliness. When we are lonely we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals surrounded, perhaps, by many people, but not really part of any supporting or nurturing community. Loneliness is without doubt one of the most widespread diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life…in elderly people but also in children, teenagers, and adults…It is even visible in the diminishing interaction between people on the streets of our cities. Out of all this pervading loneliness many cry, ‘Is there anyone who really cares? Is there anyone who can take away my inner sense of isolation? Is there anyone with whom I can feel at home?’

“It is this paralyzing sense of separation that constitutes the core of much human suffering.

Henri Nouwen, Making All Things New  (https://amzn.to/2P3APjQ)

Loneliness – No Stranger to Historical Theologians

In addition, other renown pastors and theologians suffered from these conditions, such as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon. Luther, especially, wrote much of his struggles with depression, in his writings, however, he equated solitude with isolation.

By all means, flee solitude, for the devil watches and lies in wait for you most of all when you are alone…Be of good courage, therefore, and cast these dreadful thoughts out of your mind…at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and engage in some other form of merriment.

Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 85-87 (https://amzn.to/2P9w5Jo)

Solitude Versus Isolation

What is the difference between isolation and solitude? While both words involve being alone, the Latin meaning of isolation is insula meaning island. So, imagine an island in the middle of an ocean.

Isolation is seldom sought after and usually forced upon us by outside circumstances – think health or punishment.

Solitude, on the other hand, is something sought after, a personal choice to be energized and refreshed. Richard Foster wrote in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth,

“[In solitude] There is the freedom to be alone, not in order to be away from people but in order to hear the divine whisper better,” (p. 232).  (https://amzn.to/3cp5Rvb)

My Experience With Solitude

While I grew up Southern Baptist, my first genuine invitations to solitude came from Catholic priests. The writings of Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, and Thomas Merton exposed me to a world of spirituality that, until then, had been unknown to me.

Most Baptists in my world placed high value on reading your Bible, praying, and attending church, but spending a period of time in solitude before the Lord was, for the majority, a foreign concept. Albeit, Richard Foster wrote his book in 1981, the solitude piece was not one of the celebrated disciplines in my corner of the Christian world.

In 2004, as part of training to become a hospital chaplain, I attended a graduate program in Theology, with a focus on Spirituality. It was offered at a local Catholic University, but was part of a cohort with a Protestant Seminary. The program director, a Catholic priest, told me he was excited to have a Baptist because I would ‘know the Bible well’, and many of the others would not.

This Baptist girl was shocked.

How could one attend a graduate program in Theology and not know the Bible? Admittedly, I had lived a sheltered life.

However, during the 2 years of this program, combined with chaplaincy training, I was spiritually enriched by intense, challenging debates and conversations. We didn’t always agree, nor were we threatened if we didn’t agree, yet I was never ridiculed for standing firm where I felt strongly about Scripture.

Moreover, this program afforded me an in depth look at solitude when we visited Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani, which is located in New Haven, KY.

Solitude of Gethsemani and Gethsemane

Merton was a Trappist monk, a contemplative. Trappists are known for their lifestyle of extreme self-denial, isolation, and dedication to prayer. In 1965, he requested to live in a hermitage on Gethsemani where he would have more time to pray and seek God’s wisdom.

When I returned to the Abbey for a personal retreat, it was a time of complete silence throughout the center. How unsettling that first day was! No words, no noise, no distractions!

Yet, by the second afternoon…how peaceful I became. I began to hear the Spirit speaking.

During His ministry on earth, Jesus often went aside to pray and seek the Father’s face. He needed no distractions from the crowd, or even His disciples – only His Father, Luke 5:15-16, ESV.

On that fateful night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples could not stay awake with Him…not even His three closest disciples. After finding them asleep the second time, Jesus was left alone, alone with His Father. However, it was there, in the comforting light of His presence, Jesus found the strength and courage to drink from the bitter cup awaiting Him, Matthew 26:36-42.

Jesus needed regular solitude; shouldn’t we?





One thought on “Loneliness and Isolation-How is Solitude Different?

  1. Pingback: Missing People's Faces - JOURNEY

I'm interested in what you think!