On Loneliness and Solitude


An article in Time describes a “plague of loneliness” exacerbated by social distancing during the pandemic.  But being alone does not mean being lonely.  Some dread solitude.  Others use it to create, think, and dream. 

Loneliness can be caused by social conditions.  The isolation of the pandemic provides an obvious example.  An isolating culture can reinforce psychological pathologies such as agoraphobia and social anxiety. 

But solitude can be inspiring.  Poets and philosophers have often affirmed it.  Emerson said, “people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”  By “vulgar” Emerson means “ordinary.”  Emersonian solitude seeks to transcend the ordinary.  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agreed.  They imagined the great soul rising above the vulgar masses, alone on a mountaintop.   

This is a typically masculine idea, patronizing and condescending.  Men have traditionally been free to indulge heroic individualism.  Women were not permitted the luxury of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”—a refuge for creative individuality.

Freedom and creativity are essential for avoiding the dread of loneliness.  Solitude is not dreadful when freely chosen.  To be forced into solitary confinement is a terrible punishment.  But the mystic chooses silent meditation and the poet retreats to her private room. 

The dread of loneliness is connected to boredom.  Lonely people are isolated with nothing to do.  But solitude can be replete with activity.  Indeed, some activities require us to be alone.

Hannah Arendt explained the difference between the productive solitude of the life of the mind and a more dreadful kind of loneliness.  In loneliness, you exist as a mere object and not as an active thinking being.  But in productive solitude, you keep good company with yourself. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once claimed that he was the loneliest person he knew.  He understood that loneliness gives rise to the desire for self-expression.  But he also knew that loneliness lingers as the after-effect of the creative act, an emptiness that remains after your song has been sung.

Wolfe saw loneliness as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Loneliness, he said, sucks the joy from life, leaving us empty, impotent, ruined, and lost.  Time seems to flow on without us, while we sit “drugged and fettered in the prison of loneliness.” 

One solution is found in religion.  Religious thinkers have plumbed the depths of solitude, retreating to monasteries and sitting in silence.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, explained that solitude opens an abyss within that points toward the infinite.  A different religious idea is offered by Dorothy Day who said that we overcome loneliness through service, community, and love.  She explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love.”   

This is a common refrain: to transform loneliness into love.  A poem from Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Finding”) provides a poignant example:

Out of the great darkness and wide wastes of silence,
Long loneliness, and slow untasted years,
Came a slow filling of the empty places,
A slow, sweet lighting of forgotten faces,
A smiling under tears.

Gilman reminds us that loneliness is what allows memory to unfold.  When alone we can enjoy the memory of those we’ve lost.  Later in the same poem, she explores how lost love opens onto a broader love:

Love like the rain that falls on just and unjust,
Love like the sunshine, measureless and free,
From each to all, from all to each, to live in;
And, in the world's glad love so gladly given,
Came heart's true love to me!

Here we get a sense of the strange productive power of solitude.  From out of loneliness grows the urge to communicate and to love. 

The highest human goods—art, religion, and philosophy—require solitude: a quiet and empty space in which the spirit can unfold.  Instead of allowing solitude to devolve into dreadful loneliness and succumbing to boredom, we must find ways to fill the emptiness with meaning, whether in exploring our memories or writing poetry.  This is also what scientists, entrepreneurs, bakers, and gardeners do: they create, build, and explore.  The aloneness of the creative soul is a pregnant at-one-ness, waiting to give birth to beauty, knowledge, and love. 

Solitude and Population Pressure

In today’s crowded world, even Yosemite in summer can’t provide necessary solitude

Fresno Bee, July 21, 2017


John Muir extolled the solitude of Yosemite. In 1899 he said, “Nearly all the park is a profound solitude.” That may have been true at the close of the 19th century. But if you want solitude today, stay away from Yosemite Valley on summer weekends.

One weekend in June, we were stopped by traffic in Fish Camp, a few miles from the park’s south entrance. We turned around and retreated to Fresno Dome, where we had the place to ourselves.

But Fresno Dome does not compare to the Yosemite wonderland. So on a more recent weekend, we got an earlier start. Precious few parking spots remained in Yosemite Valley. The busses were mobbed. The trails were crowded. Teeming throngs jostled to pose for pictures. So much for solitude.


In Muir’s day only 1.5 million people lived in California. Thirty years ago, our population had not yet reached 28 million. Today, there are nearly 40 millionof us. By 2035, there will be 45 millionCalifornians.

The population issue is vexing. It quickly connects to questions about birth control, sex education and reproductive rights. These are contentious issues. In April, the United States cut funding to the UN Population Fund due to concerns about abortion.

But it is still worth asking: how many people are too many? At the turn of the 20th century the global population was 1.6 billion. The current global population is 7.6 billion. By 2050, we will near the 10 billion mark.

Yosemite on the weekend is a microcosm of our crowded future. Sometimes there is literally nowhere to park and no room on the bus. New parking lots and bigger busses could help. But making the Valley more accessible will not solve the fundamental problem, which is that crowds destroy solitude.

Solitude is quickly becoming a relic of an older world. How rarely we are alone. Our electronic devices keep us occupied and connected. Our lives are crammed, cramped, and congested. Our minds are as crowded as our streets.

The world’s spiritual traditions have often advocated solitude. Jesus spent 40 days praying in the desert. The Greek word for desert—also translated as wilderness—becomes the English word “hermit.”

Thomas Merton, an American Christian monk, explained that desert hermits sought to purge away the superficial self so that “the true, secret self” could emerge. He warned that without solitude, we lose our true humanity. He wrote, “When men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

Solitude is connected to the experience of wonder. It inspires humility. And it opens the door to reflection and insight.

Go to Glacier Point at the crack of dawn, when no one else is there. Sitting alone on the edge of the world provides a revelation. That insight is lost when excited tourists pile out of buses and pose for selfies.


Of course, the same kind of solitary wonder can be experienced at home. Take a walk in your neighborhood at dawn. Find a library or church. Or simply close your eyes and sit in silence.

Those moments of quiet aloneness are essential for spiritual hygiene. To be alone is to be “all one”—to find a sense of self, integrity and wholeness. We need silence and solitude as much as we need friendship and dance and song.

Sometimes “the more the merrier” is the right motto. We can even experience a shared sense of solitude in the company of others, as when good friends pause together in hushed admiration of nature’s wonders.

All of this is a matter of dosage and degree. Saints may find enlightenment in 40 days of solitude. The rest of us can only handle a moderate dose. But the same is true of crowds and congestion—a little goes a long way.

The long-term challenge of managing the masses will require ingenuity and care. Preserving spiritual health in a crowded world is as much of a challenge as preserving wilderness.

In the short term, we can still find solitude. Turn off the phone. Sit in silence. Greet the dawn. And go to Yosemite—but not on the weekend.