Humans are social beings. No doubt, you’ve had lots of company in your life. There is the company around your kitchen table, the company you keep on social occasions, the company that populates family events, and of course your former, daily work company. You may feel a bit disoriented when you retire, because it is virtually impossible to have company all of the time. This new way of being in the world will begin immediately and will continue through the rest of your life. Having a retired partner in the house will not take away this challenge, or luxury, depending upon how this new gift is viewed. This can be good or bad news. If you hadn’t made periodic solitude a part of your prior life, this will take some adjustment. As you enter a new developmental stage, adjustment cannot happen without some deep reflection. We are not talking about becoming a hermit or a monastic permanently living in retreat. We are talking about using solitude as a time to consolidate your life experiences and take a closer look at your values. Solitude offers the inspiration, renewal, and healing needed to accept where you are in the lifecycle. It helps you find meaningful ways to move forward.
Solitude vs. Loneliness
Solitude is not to be confused with loneliness. Loneliness is how you might feel after the glow of retirement has faded. Loneliness is associated with feeling isolated and that gnawing pang that something is missing. It is a need for stimulation and distraction and possibly the fear of boredom. It is a false need for connection, because one is either uncomfortable with the current range of friends and family, or more likely, with oneself.
I have found that I am rarely lonely in retirement, because my electronic devices can immediately connect me to friends and any information or entertainment I can conjure up. Lonely retirees beware: you will not have to deal with loneliness if you are constantly online, but that is not a healthy solution.
I was very happy with my hours of solitude, even from the beginning. Those of us who were “fried” know what I mean. For others, dealing with solitude is a skill that needs to be honed over time, but can yield the greatest rewards. Paul Tillich, a noted German American philosopher and theologian’s famous quote describes the difference between loneliness and solitude: “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone, and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
Making friends with yourself
How does one turn that fear into something glorious? For the uninitiated, small steps are best. It’s good to remember that spending time alone, does not necessarily mean staying home, sitting in silence. There are many free hours in a retiree’s day, so it’s a good idea to test the waters with activities both inside and outside the home. Post pandemic, see how it feels to take in a movie or visit a museum without a friend. Nature excursions are always good places to begin. A bit higher on the ladder of challenge would be a meal in a restaurant alone. Personally, I find a breakfast or lunch alone just fine, but not a full course dinner. If I lived in an urban area, I’d be more experienced and willing to try a local establishment. On the home front, there is always reading, creative activities, listening to music, cooking, gardening and meditating. All solitary activities should be things you really want to do, but never had the time for previously. The catch 22 is that solitude is a joy if you are comfortable with yourself, but you can only be comfortable with yourself if you spend some time in solitude.
The value of solitude
Why is being alone such an ancient value? There are referents to the importance of solitude from primitive Shamans to the great thinkers of Ancient Greece and Rome. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the writer Virginia Wolf and the poet William Wordsworth are all advocates, believing their work would be impossible without long periods of retreat from the world. Even the psychologist Abraham Maslow alludes to the need for solitude in his hierarchy of human needs. The highest level of human development is self actualization, the stage in which we realize our true potential and truest self. There is a need for solitude to reflect on both the physical and the cognitive.
I have found that I am a very different person, because I am more solitary than I have ever been in my life. Circumstances have transitioned me from focusing on the “other” to focusing on myself. This isn’t a selfish enterprise. Being alone helps you peel back the layers and appreciate your true nature. Your own thoughts are required to fill the absence of others. It is a place of peace and clarity. The distractions are gone. Rejuvenation and creativity emerge. There is less pleasing or comparison to others. Perhaps the pandemic was your initiation into the realm of solitude. Like many others, I’m hoping there was a spiritual reboot all over the world during this time, when most people had to face themselves at home for well over a year.
The most surprising result of a regular practice of solitude, is that when I am out in the world, I am anxious to return home. My desire for shopping or other home avoidant behaviors has plummeted tremendously. I feel most peaceful in my own space when nobody is around. Solitude is both nourishing and cozy! I get my best ideas and am living closer to my core beliefs than at any other time. Khalil Gibran, the famous author of The Prophet, captures the essence of solitude: “A silent storm that breaks down all our dead branches, yet sends out living roots deeper into the living heart of the living world.”