Isolation vs. Solitude


Isolation is an evil twin of solitude. Because they’re twins, they often get mistaken for one another. It’s only when you see how they affect the world around them that you can begin to tell them apart. It’s crucial to understand the difference between the two because one is working for your good and the other is working against it.

Let’s begin with isolation:

The word ‘isolation’ comes from the Latin word ‘insula’, meaning island. The imagery in the name is profound. You can picture a small piece of land poking through a vast ocean, thousands of miles away from the nearest continent.

Now imagine you are that island, cut off from any other living person, and you get the sense of what it means to be isolated. Isolation is a physical reality of being distant from other people. (It is different from loneliness which is a state of mind in which we feel distance from people regardless of their physical proximity to us).

As we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people who are at high risk for infection are kept in isolation to protect them from getting sick. In addition, people who have a highly contagious disease (like coronavirus) may be kept in isolation to keep the disease from spreading farther, or to protect their weakened immune system. Additionally, it is not uncommon for prisoners to be held in isolation for a variety of reasons. And hermits are characterized by self-induced isolation from community.

While isolation is sometimes medically necessary, it ultimately describes a lifestyle which is physically distant from other people. And it can have disastrous consequences.

People who have experienced extreme isolation have reported hallucinations and difficulty processing information. They have weaker immune systems and are prone to long-term mental health problems. Even in less extreme cases, people still experience cognitive, physical, and emotional reactions from isolation. Isolation is not the answer to how we were created.

But we are not created for constant stimuli either.

Ironically, the physical and mental side effects of too much stimulation are similar to those experienced during isolation: trouble processing information, weakened immune systems, and a higher risk of experiencing anxiety and depression.

If too little interaction is as unhealthy as too much interaction, what is the healthy medium?

That’s where solitude comes in:

The major trait solitude shares with isolation is a degree of physical distance from other people. This similarlity makes these things initially hard to tell apart, but this is also where the similarities end.

Isolation describes a long-term physical distance from other people. In contrast, solitude is short-term. Isolation is a lifestyle often forced on us by circumstances (see the examples above), where solitude is a practice we choose as part of an overall lifestyle. Isolation pulls us away from community while solitude gives us the energy and strength we need to be fully present in community.

The Gospel of Luke records, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). If the God of all creation needed time to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, what does that tell us about our own need to create that same space in our lives?

As a spiritual practice, solitude is more about entering into a sacred space than it is disengaging with other people. Richard Foster writes in his book Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, “[In solitude] There is the freedom to be alone, not in order to be away from people but in order to hear the divine Whisper better” (Foster 232). Isolation destroys, but solitude sets us free.

The ways we practice solitude may look different for each of us individually. While one person may be able to find a quiet room in their house, a single mom with three kids may need to get more creative and look into planning ahead and scheduling childcare in order for solitude. A bachelor living in his own apartment may have an easier time than a college student who lives with multiple roommates.  Maybe your situation means getting up earlier than everyone else in the house. Perhaps you’ll need to find a place outside your home such as a quiet park to seek solitude. When I lived in the city, I found putting headphones in while sitting in a quiet coffee house wasn’t ideal, but it gave me a measure of silence and space for prayer I couldn’t find elsewhere.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus commands clearly: “But when you pray go to your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” We choose to close the door in solitude and in doing so, we choose a temporary withdrawal for the good of God.

Embrace the good twin of solitude. While isolation can be a detrimental defining attribute in our lives, solitude gives “time alone” the proper place in our lives. It provides protection from overstimulation and peace to spiritually function best in our everyday lives.

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