By attentive living we can learn the difference between being present in loneliness and being present in solitude. When you are in an office, a house or an empty waiting room, you can suffer from restless loneliness but also enjoy a quiet solitude. When you are teaching in a classroom, listening to a lecture, watching a movie or chatting at a “happy hour”, you can have the unhappy feelings of loneliness but also the deep contentment of someone who speaks, listens and watches from the tranquil center of his solitude. It is not too difficult to distinguish between the restless and the restful, between the driven and the free, between the lonely and the solitary in our surroundings. When we live with a solitude of heart, we can listen with attention to the words and the worlds of others, but when we are driven by loneliness, we tend to select just those remarks and events that bring immediate satisfaction to our own craving needs.
Our world, however, is not divided between lonely people and solitaries. We constantly fluctuate between these poles and differ from hour to hour, day to day, week to week and year to year. We must confess that we have only a limited influence on this fluctuation. Too many known and unknown factors play roles in the balance of our inner life. But when we are able to recognize the poles between which we move and develop a sensitivity for this inner field of tension, then we no longer have to feel lost and can begin to discern the direction in which we want to move…
The mystery of love is that it protects and respects the aloneness of the other and creates the free space where he can convert his loneliness into a solitude that can be shared. In this solitude we can strengthen each other by mutual respect, by careful consideration of each other’s individuality, by an obedient distance from each other’s privacy and by a reverent understanding of the sacredness of the human heart.
~Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life