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Loneliness and Solitude
Shyam Saksena | 14 Apr 2008

My dad was not only a Professor of Philosophy, but he answered more or less to the stereotype of an absent-minded professor. This caused much amusement within the family and among friends and his students. The only person not amused was my mother! When I look back, I realize that I owe him a lot in shaping my own life's philosophy. As a kid, whenever I used to tell him that I was feeling bored, he would drop pearls like: 'Boredom is a sign of an uncultured mind. An educated mind will always find something to engage itself, even when no outside source is available to engage, stimulate or endorse us'. Here 'educated' did not mean formal education.

I had always thought, that there was a very qualitative difference between 'Loneliness' and 'Solitude'. It was not just a simple situation of being physically separated from others, but in 'loneliness' there was a deep lack of the spiritual element - that is, either one is in a state of deprivation or there is a disconnect with the outside world and possibly with one's inner self, too. To be on the safe side, before starting this piece, I checked many dictionaries both at home and on the Net. If one goes by them, then both the words, 'loneliness' and 'solitude' can almost be used interchangeably. 'Solitude', on the other, hand to me signifies a state, where by choice or otherwise we are physically separated from others, but do not feel disowned by the world or by God. The presence of grace is very much there. We find within us, an unbounded sense of oneness with all things animate and inanimate. We lose ourselves and feel dissolved with the great cosmos outside us and within us. This is not something, that only great hermits or spiritual masters achieve, but ordinary folks like you and me, too. When we are lost in a sunset, or transported by a great concert piece, a great painting or recalling a great book or verse, time stands still. We are then verily blessed with a state of solitude, which transcends us beyond our petty self, or which awaits approval of others.

The now famous book, 'The Lonely Crowd' by David Riesman was published in 1950. I read the book much later, but for a start the two words 'Loneliness' and 'Crowd' being uttered in the same breath, set me thinking - 'How can anyone in a crowd be lonely?' This happens when the afflicted person is so self centered, that he or she needs and demands attention and approval of others, by way of right. A mind en-cultured with fine arts, music, love of nature, unselfish friendships, service towards others, will always find solace anywhere. One can always fall back on one's rich storehouse of memories, great books and stories read, concerts heard or even play a flute or a guitar, or meditate. One is soon transported from 'loneliness' to 'solitude'!

Most of us grew up on the story of 'Robinson Crusoe'. This is based on a true life story of one, Alexander Selkirk, who survived a shipwreck and was marooned on a lonely island, for more than a year - without a soul in sight! This has been chronicled by William Cowper, in his lovely poem, 'The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk', the last verse being:

"There's mercy in every place,
And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace
And reconciles man to his lot."

So, as I said, there is grace associated with 'solitude', though dictionaries and critics may quarrel with me on this! Similarly, if one is in love with nature or with 'remembrance of things past', we can sing with William Wordsworth, from his lovely poem, 'Daffodil' :

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."