“The Naked City” TV show (1958-1963) began each episode with an aerial view of New York City. The camera swooped into a shot of a burrow, than a local street appeared, followed by a close-up of individuals talking about a murder or other serious crime in their neighborhood. The show ended with the narrator, Lawrence Dobkin, saying the same words each week: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
From a distant view we see there are 47 million people in the United States over the age of 65. 3.1 million seniors reside in nursing homes, 12 million live alone, and 47% of women aged 75 and older live alone. From a distance we are just statistics, but up close each of us has a story, similar in some ways, yet uniquely different. You are one of the stories, so am I.
We bring different relationships and perspectives to our life experiences. We are all unique, yet we all have needs, hurts, happiness, and hopes. As we age what brings adventure and meaning to our lives changes. Adventure is different for a person sixty-five than it is for someone eighty-five and our adventures can be tempered when we live alone.
We are social beings. A recent study at the University of North Carolina found that meaningful social connections can affect human lifespan, make us more resilient to infections, and allow us to live longer healthier lives. Loneliness has the opposite effect.
Being alone is often equated to loneliness. However, we can feel lonely while in relationships with others if the relationships are no longer validating or nourishing. The Russian writer Anton Chekov would joke: “If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”
Loneliness is feeling isolated, without friends, forsaken, rejected. It is feeling unable to connect with others. It is a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. It usually includes anxiety stemming from a lack of hope.
After learning of the deaths of his parents, siblings, and wife in the Nazi Death Camps Victor Frankl, the great Austrian psychotherapist, wrote the following: “So now I’m all alone. Whoever has not shared a similar fate cannot understand me. I am terribly tired, terribly sad, terribly lonely. I have nothing more to hope for and nothing more to fear. I have no pleasure in my life, only duties…no success can make me happy, everything is weightless, void, vain in my eyes, I feel distant from everything. ….”
Many can identify with Victor Frankl. The loving presence of those who have died is replaced by an excruciating loneliness that remains for the rest of their life. For others, although grieving never truly ends, there comes a discovery of self in new ways.
As time passed Frankl moved from the despair of loneliness to the inner strength brought by solitude.
He wrote the following in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. Freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
“When we can no longer change situations we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Solitude is a state of mind. It is reflective and meditative. In old age solitude can lead to a deepening self-knowledge and soulful peace in acceptance of one’s mortality. Solitude brings joy to being alone.
Frankl’s insight continues: “Solitude is a source of healing that makes my life worth living. Talking is often a torment to me, and I need several days of silence to recover the futility of words….It is only in the state of complete abandonment and solitude that we experience the helpful powers of our own natures.” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul)
It is in solitude where we find the source that makes life a continuing adventure.
The world is moving too fast and I can’t keep up. I don’t recognize the names of most famous people, understand the words in contemporary music, and it is hard to stay awake through an entire movie.
I know I am slowing down. A few years ago I loved a good game of badminton, today it is bocce ball, and even then the balls are starting to feel a little heavy. I enjoy a good walk, but a half hour run is out of the question.
I am getting up earlier now-a-days to listen to the silence and watch the sunrise. Early morning coffee joins me in these treasured moments. With my arthritic hand, I reach for the cup that holds my early morning elixir. I drink deeply the magic in the moment. Solitude transcends time and space.
My time of solitude is followed by my wife bringing me a kiss. Then our small dog greets me and licks my face. Life is good. Still early in the morning I have known solitude and I know love.
The city wakes up. The hustle and bustle of another day has arrived. I will read this morning and, perhaps, yell a little at the news on TV. I meet with a friend this afternoon. He is dying. Last time I saw him he said, “Everyone wants to keep me comfortable. I know they mean well, but, you know, there is nothing comfortable about dying. This dying stuff can really be confusing and boring. No one warns you about that, especially the boring part. And you know, as good of friends as we are, you can’t die for me. We all die alone. I am grateful I am not dying lonely. I can feel loneliness when I get angry with those I love but fortunately the loneliness like the anger is fleeting. I can still greet the sunrise with a smile and look forward to the day. I want to stay lucid. I want to thank people I love for loving me.”
Reflecting on his words, I take leave of my friend.
I have learned life scars us. We get hurt and we hurt. Life can drive us to isolation. Guilt. Anger. Depression. We can become downright unlovable. Hence loneliness. Or the same hurts can bring to us solitude. I heard somewhere, ‘Never forget that scars are life. They tell us that our wounds have healed.’ Scars can teach us. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Love. Understanding. Humility. I found this truth in moments of solitude.
Florida Scott-Maxwell: “I feel most real when alone, even most alive when alone.” The Measure of My Days, p. 14 (1979).
Albert Einstein commented late in life: “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.”
In the stillness of the evening, the crispness of the dawn, come thoughts and emotions …solitude resides. Solitude is inside us. Sometimes it can get lost in the loneliness but it is ever ready to return and say again, “I bring peace that passes understanding. I bring oneness with all that is. I bring the dance of life. I offer to you anew each day a place to pause and reflect and guide your being.”
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.