From the work in progress Life: A Book About Learning to Live
By Jim Rosemergy
Being alone is not the same as being lonely.
In 1934, Admiral Robert E. Byrd was alone as few people on earth are ever alone. The nearest person was a thousand miles away from his location, Rose Barrier, Little America, Antarctica. To make matters worst, his stove, his only source of heat, was slowly killing him. It was leaking noxious fumes into his living compartment. For this reason, periodically, he stepped outside for fresh air. While standing alone in the coldest cold on earth he said that he felt a rhythm and warmth that went to the heart of man’s despair and found it groundless. This is the kind of gift we can receive when we are alone.
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. As we mature, many of us take time to be alone. The more we experience the power of aloneness, the more we seek it, but we never consciously strive to be lonely. In fact, loneliness is one of the most troubling experiences a human being can have. Lonely people often take their lives. Other people take time to be alone. It is while they are alone that they discover that their lives have meaning. These people discover that the world has no real answers to life and its challenges. What we need to know does not come from the lips of other people or even the wisdom literature of the world. Wisdom that is an experience, an experience that transforms us, comes when we are alone.
Once I was offered a job quite different from the job I had done for over 15 years. I spent three days alone in an austere setting reflecting upon my life. When I returned from my personal retreat, I knew what I had to do, and my life changed direction. I entered the void of not knowing and found that within it was guidance for the decision I had to make.
A retreat such as the one I experienced is not easy. The tendency is to oscillate between loneliness and an entirely different experience called being alone. We meet ourselves when we are alone, and the one we meet is not always welcome. When we are alone, we learn to accept what was once unknown to us or what we wanted to shun. This is what makes both loneliness and being alone so difficult. The void contains not only unseen forces and wisdom. It is also filled with us.
To be alone is to open ourselves to unseen forces. When we are lonely we fear the void we feel inside. We’d do anything to avoid it. When we are alone, we willingly enter into the void. It is as though we know that the void is a doorway to another room. What makes any doorway meaningful is not its substance, for it has none, but its emptiness. Aloneness is an emptiness that leads to another perspective on life.
Mohammed was alone in the cave at Hira on the night of power when Islam was born. Jesus was alone in the wilderness when He faced himself and prepared to begin His ministry. Buddha was alone beneath the Bodhi tree when He awakened. When we are alone, we too can awaken and experience life anew. When we are lonely, we want to fall asleep to dull the pain we feel.
Loneliness and being alone are like twin brothers. On the surface, they look alike, but inside they are different. The good news is that a person experiencing the despair of loneliness is potentially only a moment away from experiencing the gifts of being alone. Two things can serve as a bridge from loneliness to aloneness. First, a willingness to enter the void. Take note that I did not say the first thing was entering the void, but being willing to enter the void. Begin with a willingness to enter the darkest dark in the same way that Admiral Byrd was willing to stand in the coldest cold on earth. The time to enter the void will come when you consciously take time to be by yourself, but the time is not now. Now is a time for willingness. Secondly, do a simple thing that will convince you that you are not alone—do something of value for another person and do it anonymously.
Willingness and forgetting yourself through anonymous giving will form a bridge over which you can walk. On one side of the bridge is loneliness. On the other side is being alone. Express your willing by planning your personal retreat and by giving your anonymous gift. As you do, the bridge will form. Don’t wait too long before you walk across it.