“I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean white towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms."
- Richard Jones
This poem by Richard Jones has stuck with me for years. But today, it takes on new meaning.
With a lot of time to myself – my wife goes to work at dawn and we don't have kids (yet) – the question of human connection, or lack thereof, is thrown into sharp relief.
Conversations with family, most of whom live abroad, have increased substantially.
Some days, I spend so many hours in front of a screen that I get headaches. Side note: I just ordered some blue-light-filtering, non-prescription glasses and am pretty excited to look sophisticated on Zoom.
I'm grateful for the talks with family and friends, but it's bittersweet. There's a level of sadness underneath it all.
Without being fully conscious of it, I am mourning the loss of what was.
I'm confident we will find a new normal and adapt, much like we did after 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, but let's be clear: things will never be the same again.
In all periods of change there's an element of loss. Something gets left behind.
We are living in a major transition period, and I'm noticing a lot of unspoken grief about what we're moving on from. We don't yet know what we're moving on to, but we sense that something is different.
Intensified by the physical disconnect from fellow humans and the world outside our homes, it makes sense to feel grief.
It's even worse when we're feeling lonely and don't have people pulling us back into the fray. Loneliness is literally deadly. Studies have compared its impact on health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
I feel it's important to talk about grief and loneliness out loud. To name my emotions and see them for what they are.
Psychologists have studied the stages in processing grief, with the last stage being acceptance. To reach acceptance, you have to go through the motions: denial, anger, depression, bargaining.
I have noticed a whole lot of denial lately, both in intimate relationships and on the national scale.
The problem is when we get stuck in those stages. ANY challenge in life can be an opportunity, even the ones that feel impossible and heart wrenching in the moment. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can influence your experience.
"I have been studying the difference between solitude and loneliness," and focusing on the research-based tools I’ve learned that can help.
For example, noticing the difference between what's within my control and what’s not, and letting go of the latter. Sometimes I write it down on a sheet of paper with two columns: “Can Control” and, “Can’t Control.” Physically putting pen to paper changes the floating thoughts in my head into something I can see and process better. Most of the time, making those distinctions are sufficient, but sometimes I go further and start outlining what I will actually do about the controllable factors, piece by piece.
I also make sure I keep “watering the flowers” of the relationships that matter to me without compensating on social media. Instead of scrolling on Instagram for a distraction, today I took a moment to send a text message to a friend and genuinely ask how she is doing. I’ve asked another friend to Facetime later this week. And I make sure to speak with my family, if only for a few minutes, every day. These brief human exchanges recharge me much more than any media feed ever can, reminding me that being physically isolated is not the same as being alone.
What is the difference between solitude and loneliness for you? What can you do to help yourself process and grow through this period?
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Danny Ghitis, ACC, CAPP, is an ICF-certified coach, positive psychology practitioner, and trainer. He works with successful people who don't necessarily feel successful to overcome burnout, build healthier habits, and feel more excited about their future. In his past life he was a photojournalist and frequent contributor to The New York Times. Learn more on his website.