The elderly widower knocked on my kitchen door and then, in the way of neighbors in this rural community, started to let himself in. I forestalled him, not in the mood for visitors, and he produced a card with a photo of his recently deceased wife and handed it to me. I live in a Catholic area of The Netherlands and it is traditional to present everyone who sent condolences with a ‘prayer card’. I accepted the card and repeated my condolences. He murmured his thanks and then cleared his throat. “Now we’re in the same boat,” he said awkwardly. “Alone and lonely.”
I suppressed a smile and answered as gently but decisively as possible. “I’m sorry you feel lonely now, I’m sure you miss your wife. I don’t feel lonely, I choose to live alone.” I said goodbye and closed the door firmly.
Like many people of my age, who have been through much in their lives, I do choose to live alone and I enjoy my solitude. I won’t go into the validity of the choice. I do believe that learning to have a meaningful life with a partner is one of the most challenging and rewarding things one can experience in a lifetime. However, it has not been my path, for many reasons. Most of which I go into in my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork: Delivering the Soul. I have learned to live alone and am grateful for this gift.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. How many people do you know who are able to be alone for any period of time? We all find ways to escape being alone and I’m no exception.
I often catch myself holding a conversation with another person in my head. In the past, it was often my mother. I would point out features in the Dutch landscape to her, imagining that she had come over from the States for a visit. After her death in 2008, other people appeared in my imaginary conversations: often someone I would like to see or someone I was planning to see.
I tried the antidote prescribed by many healers and spiritual teachers: mindfulness and/or meditation to still the mind. My mind became much quieter, but the imaginary conversations popped up every time I wasn’t paying attention.
Gradually, I started realizing that this chatter in my head was a way to avoid the pang of loneliness. I needed to face this feeling, to let myself experience what it was I was avoiding. This is an extremely important step. Avoiding pain pulls one further and further into escapist behavior. Honoring the pain, honoring the unwanted and unloved parts of your personality, is the road towards wholeness.
And so, without anyone around who might (for whatever reason) try to alleviate my pain, I moved past the feeling of being bored, sleepy, hungry, or thirsty. I accepted the deadly silence around me. And, when I had entered the place of pain, I accepted the full brunt of feeling lonely, unloved, and unwanted. It hurt. Definitely. But, once I allowed myself to acknowledge the hurt feeling, the intensity of it subsided.
The next step is more difficult to describe. It has to do with becoming aware of the presence of an intrinsic ‘self’ that is always there but only sensed if we open up to it. People use different words for it. Some people will feel comfortable with the word Soul. Others may feel awkward with the word because it has had so many connotations in different traditions. It’s the part of us that was there when we were born and will be with us when we die. That essence of us that is whole and integrated.
So now, when I feel the urge to talk to an invisible someone, I call up the image of my whole, integrated, undivided self and talk to her. You could say I’m talking to myself. I am, in a sense. The warmth of feeling heard, acknowledged, and loved floods me and I lose the need to chatter.
It is a crucial step. Not only to feeling at peace with being alone, but feeling the absolute richness of this solitude. I wish it to all who are, by choice or by mishap, spending time alone.