'Aren't you lonely?' is a question I am often asked, mostly by married friends who have known nothing else but life with other people. Yes, of course there are times when I, like others, feel acutely alone - often when I experience exclusion from a particular group, or conversation, or activity because others don't think to include me; often when I feel vulnerable and exposed doing a lone activity such as preaching, or leading, or making a tough decision; often when I have no one to share the decision making and am dependent upon my own judgement. But, being alone - living alone - is not the same as being lonely.
The judgement is as if those who live alone must be missing out on something, are to be felt sorry for or must have a sad life. Loneliness is seen as something negative, joyless, something to be pitied. Yet, I have discovered being alone to be just the opposite. To be energising, enriching, and sometimes envied by others because of its freedom and autonomy.
I can chose to fill my solitude with noise, or to live with silence. Indeed for twelve years of living alone I embraced the silence quite significantly. Home became a place for an ongoing inner dialogue between myself and God, a place of creativity which was a springboard for an active ministry, a place of renewal and re-creation which prepared me to go out into the world. For the last two years however, I have had to adjust to a different setting, having a secretary in my home 5 days a week has meant I now have partial silence to resource me. Yes, I have a radio and a TV, but for a much of time, particularly during the day, they are switched off rather than on.
For some people being alone, and being silent is difficult practically and temperamentally; for others it is hard to settle into; the key is finding company in being alone. That may sound like a contradiction, but it is all about an inner relationship of body, mind and spirit connecting and finding companionship and peace together. Something hermits, monks and nuns can teach us. For some being alone may be a calling - and yes, I do believe for some singleness is just that, but for all it is a place of deep refreshment, to visit on occasions, which will refresh a weary soul battered by a noisy and busy world.
Aloneness is a counter-balance to togetherness, it is not a denial of company but an openness to it; it is not a selfish state but the acknowledgement that self worth and self knowledge only comes from embracing what's within and living with it. In fact it is about accepting and loving who we are, without finding our worth in what we do, what we say, or who we know. For me, it is summed up best by Richard Foster when he writes 'Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment. '