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Alone vs Lonely

by Meredith Woods Potter

The small child followed her mother into each bedroom, helping to make the beds and pick up dirty clothes. She was right on her mother’s heels as they made their way to the laundry room to start the first load of wash. As her mother began to clear the breakfast dishers, the little girl spread her dolls onto the kitchen floor. Her mother smiled at her 4-year-old and said, “Why don’t you and your dolls go play in the family room while I do the dishes.” The little girl looked at her mother with a serious expression on her face and began to shake her head. “I can’t,” she explained, “because if I leave you here by yourself, you’ll be lonely.”

What it means to be lonely

Even at age four the little girl had reached the conclusion experienced by far too many adults in our society: to be alone is to be lonely. However, despite the fact that many people who are essentially alone are or become lonely, the two experiences are not the same—nor necessarily interchangeable. We find ourselves alone when we are by ourselves, without another human being. Loneliness, on the other hand, is not so much a physical state of being alone as it is the emotional perception of feeling alone.

Loneliness arises when we find ourselves without meaningful connections   and   relationships. Loneliness is the despair we feel when separated from family, friends, and society. It is the emptiness that results when we feel uncared for and unloved. Changes in our society have contributed to the growing number of people who experience loneliness. It used to be that extended families lived near one another, if not in the same house, at least in the same town.  Neighbors took care of each other, and it was almost unheard of for someone to face Thanksgiving dinner alone.

The Rev. Dr. Meredith Woods Potter is a retired Episcopal priest who lives alone. The St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church community in Deerfield, Ill., her bridge friends, an extended family that includes nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, and her cat, Maggie, keep her from being lonely.

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