Saturday, June 18, 2011

The difference between being alone and being lonely

There's no doubt that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely and it is a difference I have learned over many years of spending long periods alone. There are degrees in that alone-ness in that sometimes it is just being completely alone with Greg away and no friends or family nearby, as it is now here in Malawi and being at the farm with friends and family a breath away. The latter is considerably easier than the former.

In this aloneness there are no nearby friends and those who are far away, along with family, are mostly sleeping in the darkness which covers that part of the world. But, even if I had someone to call, beyond Greg in South Africa, the phones don't work internationally most of the time. Well, mine doesn't.

And this weekend there is no-one in the compound but me and the guard/s. Our Thai neighbours, Pawan and Pawadee have left on holidays, the house across the way where our Danish neighbours lived is empty, the guest house is empty and from midday Saturday to Monday morning, Limited and Andrew are not here. It isn't so bad because Greg is back tomorrow but it is alone time all the same.

My longest alone time was years ago when we lived in Angola when I was on my own for six weeks with I think one visit from a work colleague, who finally bothered to drop in. I saw people of course, walking to and fro in the compound but my Portugese was pretty bad and their English was minimal so communication was difficult.

And the telephone connections in Africa in the late nineties were truly abysmal and the internet connection erratic. My companions were the wild cats which lived in the roof and yes, I did start talking to them. But I saw it as a discipline, a monastic practice in a way and because the experience had come to me I saw it as necessary; a spiritual discipline in essence.  It was  a very long six weeks but as a practice at aloneness it was excellent. I divided my day into sections of cleaning, cooking,reading, working, writing, meditating and finally, music, wine, an excellent dinner and a movie, if the television was working. Otherwise it was a book and bed. But consumed in small portions the days passed in a fashion both rewarding and fulfilling.

I am good at being on my own. I have learned to be through many years in India and Africa and it is not that I am short of things to do or even bored. It is just that the absolute aloneness which comes with no partner, friend or family nearby is odd even when one has things to do.

I find I catch the silence, the emptiness, the solitary nature of this world every now and again and it feels strange. I suppose one notices it more in the Third World where often, as is the case here, there are really not many places one can go and feel a sense of belonging, or even find a pleasant distraction. The aloneness wanders with you at such times and never more so when isolation is increased by a lack of language. 

When I am completely alone in the house the sounds seem louder.Or perhaps it is because I am seeking something other than the sound of my own breath or the keys as I type. I hear large birds walking on the roof; the pipes stretching and tapping as they expand and contract; the hum of my computer; occasionally a car; the creak of my chair as I uncross and recross my legs; the sound of my breath .... the sounds of silence. I am complete in myself alone and yet so conscious of being incomplete. That may only make sense to me but that is because it is a feeling and feelings can be difficult to reduce to words. 

Being completely alone somehow condenses everything into Self; an odd sense that the world begins and ends in one. Which I suppose it does. In a way. It's a reminder of how much of what we are is a reaction or response to others. Perhaps being alone we can see ourselves more clearly in that way which teenagers need, to step beyond the parental shadow to see more clearly their own shape and form. When we are alone we can see more clearly who we are; if we choose to look. But that too can be frightening for some.

I understand at such times why those who live in crowded communities and shared housing, as Indians and Africans do, are unnerved or even traumatised by being alone. It is a Western thing, a modern thing, this being used to aloneness. It is no doubt in the world as it is, a worthwhile skill. It is also impossible for some to learn, of that I have no doubt. When you are used to never being alone ... in India even if family is absent there are always servants ... it must be terrifying to be utterly, completely alone.

Growing up in my world I can get used to spending time alone without sight or sound of others but growing up in the Third World where privacy is a word which does not exist, I am sure many could not or would not get used to it. Is that a gift or a curse? Probably both.

It makes me ponder how hard it is for those who have been together for years and who suddenly lose their partner. Now that must be the oddest thing of all. Even within the worst of relationships, and I have watched this with friends, there is such a sense of loss, of sundering apart, of terrible aloneness even when there is no loneliness.

We are communal creatures and to that end our more individual, separated world in the West is not the norm. It is our friends and family, the connections we make and maintain, which keep us physically and psychologically healthy.  I am sure it is why when we are alone we are more likely to talk out loud to ourselves, and even to answer, while smiling at the oddness of it all. It is why, I am sure, that people who live alone often have a pet.... something which moves, connects, relates and responds.

We were not made to be alone. We were made to be connected. We are connected of course, always, at other, unseen levels, but we also need to see, feel and know we are connected at a material level. Even sitting here, writing this, which someone else may read, or not, there is a greater sense of connectedness than if I were simply writing in my journal; that repository of words which languishes in file or book or drawer.

It is reaching out which gives our lives meaning, purpose and soul. It is connecting which makes us both human and alive. We can be alone without being lonely, but we should never spend too much time alone because that is not good for mind, body or spirit. Remembering why it is we need to connect with others keeps us re-weaving and re-working the web of relationships which make both us and our world.

Alone I am no more than myself; with another I am much more than I ever might be.

The Self is shown in silent times,
in shadowed, lonely days
when words are mere remembering
and touch, a dream delayed. 


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