I am a recent convert to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs programme. The premise is simple. Guests are figuratively cast away to a desert island and allowed to choose and discuss their eight favourite tracks to listen to, along with a Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare, one other book of their choice and a luxury item.
The actor Tom Hanks produced an interesting and emotional interview. We learned that he had a disjointed childhood with a father who moved from job to job, scooping up the children and frequently moving them from place to place. The clear message that Tom put across was that he turned to acting to assuage his loneliness. Indeed, he said he was searching for the vocabulary of loneliness. I was particularly moved and inspired by his words,
There’s a huge difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is to be avoided, solitude is to be sought. It’s good for the soul.
The movement from loneliness to solitude represents for me the gradual process of learning to still my restless spirit and embracing instead a peaceful sense of calm. It is the difference between feeling alone in a crowd and accepting comfortable isolation – as a choice.
Last week, a day out on our holiday with friends exemplified for me the beauty of solitude. You might not expect to find solitude on what is effectively a tourist trip, but we did …
It was a warm, still sunny day and we were in Dalyan, a riverside resort in Turkey. Alison and Bob booked a boatman to take just the four of us out on his boat for the day. He collected us from the jetty behind our hotel.
We set off past the Dalyan rock tombs, and the town itself, before we reached a channel between tranquil reed beds, our passage disturbed only by the melodic sound of the reed warblers’ song and the gentle lapping of the water.
We eventually passed into a large lake surrounded by the soft green slopes of mainly uninhabited, tree-lined hills.
After a while, the boat dropped anchor in a secluded bay.
The experience was a total gift to the senses. The touch of the cool milky green water as we swam from the boat was soft and gentle. We exclaimed at the sight of the terrapins in the water and beauty of the land around us. We inhaled the warm scent of the wild oregano and thyme on the hillside.
Our lunch was simple and delicious; fresh fish and meat barbecued on the back of the boat accompanied by salad anointed with oil and a squeeze of crisp, sharp lemon juice. All we heard was the occasional bird and the chime from the bells round the goats’ necks as they scrambled effortlessly among the rocks on the shore.
But there was also a sixth sense present. This I can only describe as a deep sense of contentment with our brief time of solitude away from the bustle and clamour of the everyday world. It was a magical, wonderful, memorable day. Alison and Bob had been on a similar trip before and wanted us to share in their enjoyment, and it certainly worked on the TRI level – that is to say, it entirely nourished, for all of us, mind, body and spirit.
The loneliness of grief is a desert. Particularly in the early days, when you are most likely to be surrounded by well-meaning family and friends, all you can feel is a wrenching sense of being alone with your pain and loss. You feel that no-one else can comprehend what you are feeling, and you are right. You have to learn to live with the loneliness and eventually be able to turn it from an arid stretch of barren scrubland into a garden of solitude.
The loneliest pain of loss eventually gives way to a solitude which possesses in it a kind of self-worth.
Loneliness is fearful.
Solitude is brave.
Loneliness is barren, constricted by its own limitation.
Solitude is fertile, giving the mind free rein to be creative and expansive.
I echo the words of Tom Hanks but would take what he said even further and emphasise the difference in the nourishment of the soul that exists between loneliness and solitude.
To my mind, loneliness is an outward reaching, futile desire that hungers for company in a negative way. Solitude reaches inwards to the soul to seek and eventually find, the peace and balance that come from positively knowing self. Like most things in life, this is a learning curve and can only by achieved gently and gradually, taking small, ultimately rewarding steps along the way.