We choose solitude; we suffer isolation. So the sages say. This formula certainly has the virtue of clearly marking the two extremes of the same reality – i.e., being alone, but they risk getting in the way of our recognizing the shades of gray that colour the intermediate zone.
One may be alone without having wished it, and yet come to terms with it/embrace it. It is here perhaps where the glory of being alone may be found, to quote Tillich, who contrasted “solitude” or the glory of being alone, with “isolation” or the pain of being alone.
One may also have chosen to be alone without coming to terms with this choice. Herein lies perhaps the greatest pain of being alone.
The most common situation is no doubt that of half-choosing to be alone and, equally, only half coming to terms with the choice. This might be the situation of someone who, at the age of 50, sought a divorce without weighing the risk of thereby ending his or her days alone. Not having truly wanted to be alone, this person constantly seeks for distractions. Seneca, no doubt, had someone in just such a situation in mind when he wrote: “We cannot stand our ills, nor the remedies to our ills.”
We also associate isolation with emptiness, and solitude with fullness – this is another way of focusing attention on the two extremes. But it still has to be pointed out that the emptiness associated with isolation is most often a false fullness, consisting of being filled with everything except oneself, reality, and God. With everything, that is to say, with the multitude of images and sounds to which we are constantly subject.
As for the fullness, the richness associated with solitude, in order to be authentic, it must be preceded by interior emptiness. It is here, moreover, where the meaning of solitude is to be found: to substitute the true emptiness for the false plenty. This implies that solitude is accompanied by silence as well as by tranquil and non-transient beauty. As the emptiness gathers itself in us, something that can never happen without pain, another reality, generated from the core of our being and the heart of all things, gradually fills us, if we are loved, and if we love. Everything starts with love, including the interior emptiness. At the core of the person isolated in false completeness, there lives a wretched being, ignored by himself or herself, and by others. Who then will acknowledge him or her, and through which spirit of love?