There isn’t a single human being on the planet who hasn’t experienced loneliness. Ironically, humanity is united in the shared experience of this deeply personal emotion. We all know what it’s like to feel lonely.
What if loneliness is actually a gift?
I spent quite a bit of time traveling in Eastern Europe in my early 20’s. Sometimes I would connect with other travelers. Other times I would venture out on my own. I ate solitary meals in foreign restaurants, wandered crowded cobblestone streets filled with laughing couples, and spent evenings alone with a book in the stark, glaringly white dormitory-like rooms of Soviet-era hostels.
But the most poignant loneliness came from witnessing something beautiful with no one to share the experience. Standing on an ancient bridge as sun set over the city, strolling along the wall of a centuries-old castle towering above a forest of green, or walking along an empty beach as the sun glistened like diamonds on the wet sand, I felt a profound ache, yearning for a companion with whom I could share life’s beauty.
In those days, loneliness was something real and physical. I remember an aching sensation in my chest that would rise up my throat, threatening to choke me. Today, the feeling is much softer… more akin to melancholy. Loneliness is a sense of appreciation for loved ones who are absent. But even decades later, I recall that visceral experience of loneliness with great clarity.
As I write, we are in the midst of global quarantine with varying degrees of governmental restrictions. Some people are simply encouraged to follow a government recommendation to shelter-in-place. Other people are required to adhere to police-enforced mandates. In either case, isolation and loneliness are very real for many people right now.
Some people are actually living alone. They have no one to talk to, no one with whom to share conversations, meals, or time as they pass through the span of a day. Others are emotionally struggling to survive while surrounded by others. Children in abusive homes, teens whose self-identify is tied to that of their peers, career-minded individuals who derive sense of worth and self-esteem from their jobs, are all feeling deep pangs of loneliness.
Principles of Tai Chi can help develop a positive approach to loneliness. Teachers of Tai Chi use the word ‘tsou’, which means ‘yielding’, to describe how to be soft when an aggressor is hard. Tai Chi does not use the word ‘soft’ to mean ‘compliant’. Rather, it’s the ability to be pliable. In Tai Chi, you use your opponent’s force to defeat him. Yielding is the same as borrowing.
This concept is very powerful when applied to loneliness. Rather than pushing loneliness away, yield to it, borrowing its energy. Meditation and walking in nature are two very specific methods to harness the energy of loneliness.
Three magic words embody the Tai Chi principle of harnessing energy: I attracted this.
How does ‘I attracted this’ look when applied to loneliness? Why am I attracting loneliness in this moment? What does loneliness have to offer me?
1. Loneliness stimulates creativity.
Some of man’s greatest works of music, poetry and literature have been created in partnership with loneliness. Science has benefitted from loneliness too. When Isaac Newton was quarantined because of the plague, he identified the nature of gravity.
2. Loneliness fosters gratitude.
Loneliness engenders appreciation for relationships past, present and future. Friends and family members are no longer taken for granted.
3. Loneliness builds anticipation.
Loneliness generates space to get intentional about your time, energy and relationships. It provides the opportunity to mentally craft a vision of your ideal relationship or your ideal career without noise or distraction. Social psychologists use the word “propinquity” to describe the likelihood of interaction between two people. In short, by clearly identifying the type of people with whom you want to spend your time, you identify where you need to focus your energy in order to attract those people. The same holds true for jobs or careers. If you want to spend time with outdoorsy people or get an outdoorsy job, spend more time outdoors. If you want to spend time with fun people, figure out what it means to have ‘fun’! Loneliness provides perspective, allowing you to evaluate how you want to spend your time and who you want to spend it with.
I know I want to attract more FUN in my life! I want to attract more ADVENTURE! More importantly, I want to be a better friend. I want authentic relationships with the beautiful people life has put in my path. I want to dedicate time every day to being an uplifter and supporter, just as I am uplifted and supported. In short, I want to connect. And, as far as I’m concerned, that is loneliness’ greatest gift.