Solitude or Isolation? Which is it?

I’ve always loved my alone time.

As an introvert (who can, if pressed pretend not to be!) my energy is restored when I interact with one or two folks or no one at all.  A dream afternoon is writing while listening to nothing louder than the wind chimes outside my door.

I treasure solitude.

Since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, I find I need even more alone time than before.

That quiet place is where I do my most effective grief work, undisturbed by interruptions and distractions.

But I need to be careful that solitude doesn’t shift into isolation. 

I have to remind my heart that spending time with others keeps me from falling so deeply down the well of despair that all I see is darkness.

I need human interaction to keep me connected to a world that, quite frankly, I might sometimes just as soon leave behind.

So how can I tell the difference between solitude and isolation?

Here are a few questions that help me figure that out:

  • Do I feel lonely, neglected or abandoned? If my alone time feels less like a gift and more like an unwelcome burden then it may be isolation rather than solitude.
  • Where are my thoughts taking me? Being alone is often the only way to “hear” my own thoughts without having to block out the noise and activity of other people. If I am sitting with myself, processing hard things or even beautiful things, resolving internal conflict, conjuring new ways to deal with difficult relationships or situations then solitude is doing its work. If, instead, I find my mind tangled up in fearful knots, filled with negative self-talk or unable to break a downward spiral into despair then I probably need to find someone to talk to.
  • Am I getting stronger or being drained? After the holidays or other hectic seasons I need time alone to recharge my batteries. Often it is almost a day-for-day exchange. I can feel tension melting away and strength returning. My mind begins to clear and life doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Solitude grants space for my body, mind and soul to be refreshed. When it slides into isolation I can feel the shift. Instead of waking refreshed and eager to greet a free day, I wake to dreading another long one alone. Instead of energy rising in my spirit, I can feel it draining away. Instead of thinking kindly of friends and family who choose to leave me be, I’m resentful no one has checked up on me.
  • Is there a helpful rhythm to my days alone or am I counting the hours until sundown? When I’m enjoying solitude, the hours feel like a welcome opportunity to do things (or not do things!) at my own pace and according to my own preferences. I sit with pen in hand and jot down a list knowing that if I complete it or if I don’t the only person I have to answer to is myself. No pressing appointments and no worrisome commitments. When I’m isolating, the hours feel like a long march through deep mud-every step tedious, treacherous and exhausting. I’m alone but I’m not getting any benefit from it. If I’m enduring instead of enjoying then I’m isolating.
  • Do I have an endpoint in mind? When I look ahead at a week on my calendar, I try to balance alone time with social commitments. A day or two alone (or with limited human interaction) is solitude. A week holed up in the house is isolation. If I find myself pushing off needed outings (to the grocery store, to run errands) then I ask myself, “why?”. Often it’s because I’ve drifted from solitude (helpful alone time) to isolation (unhelpful hiding).

I can shift myself out of isolation by choosing just one small social interaction.

I might text or message a friend, go to the grocery store and make a point of speaking to the clerk, call someone or show up at a church or community event even if I sit in the back and slip out early.

I’m never going to be that person who is up for every outing. That’s just not how I’m made and child loss has intensified my need for solitude.

But I don’t want to be alone and lonely, sinking deeper and deeper into a pit of my own making.

Some days it’s harder than others.

But I keep trying.