Probably most of us have experienced loneliness at one time or another. Maybe it was our first time away from home, or traveling somewhere away from family and friends.
But what surprises many is: Loneliness has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not you are alone. It is possible to be lonely in a crowd. It is equally possible to be alone without being lonely.
There’s a definition of loneliness by Robert Weiss that I find helpful. “Loneliness is the sense of isolation that is caused by the absence of a needed relationship.” When someone dies, we feel so terribly alone … that is the isolation, or as someone aptly described it, the “unwanted individuation”. And the cause of that is the absence of a needed relationship.
When we feel lonely we are saying “I had a relationship with that person. I needed it, wanted it, counted on it, and now that it is no longer here, I miss it … and indeed, I wonder how I can go on without it.”
And that is a very important point. We can have all kinds of other relationships … family, friends, church, community … but this is the relationship we miss. We feel lonely in a crowd, because we are missing that needed relationship.
So how do we overcome loneliness? Paul Tillich gives us an important grief guideline: “Loneliness can only be overcome by those who can bear solitude.”
Loneliness is the absence of a needed relationship. Aloneness on the other hand is a relationship with ones-SELF. It means coming to the place where we can say, “Although I no longer have this needed relationship, I am going to be OK.” That doesn’t diminish the importance of the presence, family, friends, community, or even the presence of God.
But we have to finally get in touch with the resources that we have available within ourselves that enables us to say ourselves, “I will survive. I will be OK.