Solitude vs Loneliness in the Second Half of Life
The question of “solitude vs loneliness” is vital to us in the second half of life, although it’s really with us for our whole lives.
None of us wants to be terribly lonely. Yet, sometimes being on our own in solitude can be some of the most important times in our lives. What actually makes the difference between loneliness and solitude? And how, especially, do these things affect us during mid-life transition and later?
Loneliness vs Solitude in Later Years
Recently, CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition aired a program on “Grey Divorce”, interviewing a number of women who had divorced after the age of 50. The program noted that, unlike other segments of the population, the divorce rate is increasing for over-50s.
The interviewed women provided extremely valuable insight. It is shocking to realize how utterly lonely some of the women were in their marriages — of 30, 40 or more years in duration. It was striking that, even after the painful end of their marriages, many of the women felt more fulfilled, more free and more alive than they ever had in their marriages.
What do these experiences show us about loneliness vs solitude, and about meaningful life and fulfillment?
Loneliness and the Second Half of Life
What is it to be lonely? What is it to be in solitude? Freud, ever the extrovert’s extrovert, was sure that solitude was linked to pain and anxiety. Much of our society would agree, as many seem to do everything in their power to avoid quiet and being alone. Yet contemporary research seems to indicate that, while loneliness can damage our thinking capacity and even our physical health, solitude of the right kind can actually strengthen individuals. As Jack Fong, a sociology researcher and solitude advocate at CalState Polytechnic puts it, “When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them in a social setting.”
This view accords with a long tradition in /a-midlife-transition and Jungian analysis of exploring solitude as a means of engaging the self.
We Need to Get Beyond Loneliness, to be Ourselves
In the second half of life, individuals’ needs vary greatly. For many, it may very well be that more and better social interaction with others is exactly their greatest need. Neuroscience shows clearly that nature has designed human beings to be profoundly social. We know very well that good social interaction is essential to the full and proper development of the human individual, in the developing years, but also as we move through our life journey.
For many in the second half of life, finding good, quality social interaction will be a very key part of the “individuation process” — the term /a-midlife-transition uses for the whole process of our becoming who we’re fundamentally meant to be. In order to access the parts of the personality that are seeking to blossom and come into their own, it’s necessary to experience in-depth interaction with others. All the thoughts and feelings and ups and downs of social relating expand our capacity for eros, for related connection, with others.
Yet, We Need Solitude, As Well
Yet simultaneously, we also actually need solitude! Just as we need to exercise and expand our capacity for connection with others, we need to expand the capacity for connection with ourselves. We shun loneliness, but midlife transition may call us to a connection in new ways to our own inner being, and to listening to the voices of parts of ourselves we may never have witnessed before. Thus do we become grounded in the sense of meaning connected to our own individual lives.
As Mark Blinch, echoing Jack Fong, tells us, “The difference between solitude as rejuvenation and solitude as suffering is the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it.” Or, as C.G. Jung himself said, “Solitude is a fount of healing that makes my life worth living…. The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”
For /a-midlife-transition, the capacity for self-reflection and solitude, and the capacity for beneficial social connection are both essential aspects of the journey towards wholeness, and the uncovering of individual identity.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst