A few months ago during a holiday sermon, my friend and rabbi, David Glickman of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City, spoke about “loneliness” vs. “aloneness.” It was a wonderful piece, though, I must admit, it was a distinction I’d never considered; an important distinction for any serious networker seeking to build relationships.
In his talk, Rabbi Glickman described “loneliness” as something fundamentally bad. There’s nothing worse than loneliness. As humans, we are not meant to be without others, we are not meant to be isolated. Rather, we are intended to be part of a community, intended to be surrounded and propped up by others.
He cited a New Republic article entitled, “The Lethality of Loneliness,” by Judith Shulevitz in which the circumstances described by the author make it easy to imagine the psychological plagues of loneliness: depression, addiction, and other ailments. Based on recent studies, Shulevitz shares that loneliness actually decreases immunity levels in humans and can even affect us negatively at a genetic level. In contrast, she writes:
“Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down.”
Again, this is all evidence that supports ensuring we surround ourselves with community. Loneliness, however, is not intended to be confused with “aloneness.” In fact, aloneness is an entirely different creature. The idea here is that we can certainly be part of a community, yet it is extremely important that each of us have private, internal dialogue with ourselves that is individualized and unique. Rabbi Glickman describes aloneness in this way:
“Aloneness is the individual dialogue, the self-awareness of the soul, the ability to move past personal insecurity.”
In preparation for my recent Vail Leadership Institute retreat, I was asked to answer the questions, “To what extent do you take time for reflection? How often do you seek solitude?” I sort of laughed off the assignment; alone time is not something that I readily seek or even believe I have access to. However, upon further reflection, I realized that some of my cherished “thinking time” comes on my way home from work. More often than not, I find myself making the 40 minute drive, radio off, phone holstered, just thinking. Turns out, it is a wonderful way to decompress, to process the events of the day, give thought to what is next, to consider my family-related responsibilities for the evening and so on. It is precious time that, apparently, is more important to me than I originally realized.
So, I encourage you to fight loneliness for yourself and for others. With that same intensity and determination, embrace aloneness in order to engage in self-reflection, give thoughtful consideration to whatever is going on around you and to grapple with issues of personal importance. Seek to eliminate loneliness – that which is bad – while allowing time for aloneness in order to gain clarity of thought and purpose.