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Can "the Glory of Being Alone" Ease our Struggles With Loneliness?

08/07/2013 11:28 BST | Updated 06/09/2013 10:12 BST

"Only the lonely, know the way I feel," Roy Orbison sang in his 1960 hit single.

More than 50 years have now passed and during that time many who have felt forlorn have identified with the Big O's chart-topping lyrics.

Stephen Fry has just added himself very publicly to the list.

The multi-faceted British writer and broadcaster made his feelings clear in a recent blog headed with the song's title. In the piece, Fry went public with what he feels to be "the most terrible and contradictory" of his problems - he doesn't like his own company but values his privacy.

"It's a lose-lose matter. I don't want to be alone, but I want to be left alone," he explained.

His honest unpacking of a deep-seated problem illustrates how loneliness can creep up on people in many guises - ranging from a sense of sheer physical isolation to feeling alone in a crowd of admirers.

Indeed, a Psychology Todayarticle confirms that even a long-term committed relationship doesn't necessarily solve the scourge of aloneness. "In one recent study, 62.5% of those who reported being lonely were married and living with their partner," it said.

Furthermore the number of older adults in the UK who say they are "sometimes lonely" is up by 20%, with ten percent of over-65s "chronically lonely", said Laura Ferguson from the Campaign to End Loneliness.

While that's sad in itself, it gets worse - it's also bad for our health. Psychologists have found that loneliness can lead to changes in the immune system which contribute to more serious illnesses.

"Doctors have known for some time that loneliness is bad for the mind. It leads to mental health problems like depression, stress, anxiety, and a lack of confidence," the BBCreported. It added: "But there's growing evidence that social isolation is connected with an increased risk of physical ill health as well."

Additionally, a study from the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found that those who live alone "suffer far more from a range of debilitating diseases, including arthritis, osteoporosis and glaucoma; 50.7 per cent have arthritis and rheumatism compared with 38 per cent of those who live with others."

Although the impact can be physical, the solution is not. 'You can't treat loneliness, there isn't a pill for it, not yet anyway,' quoted another blog, looking at loneliness in the context of the doctor-patient relationship.

So what can fill the gap? Celebrated American author Mark Twain pinpointed the mental nature of the condition: "The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself." And turning that on its head, motivational speaker Dr. Wayne Dyer has pointed towards a cure: "You cannot be lonely if you like the person you're alone with."

Digging a bit deeper, Ohio State University's Dr Lisa Jaremka told the BBC: "Being lonely means not feeling connected or cared for, it's not about being physically alone."

One young woman's pen poignantly captured that heart's desire to feel connection and care when she wrote of "pining for tenderness whose streams will never dry or cease to flow". Still, her next several decades contained more ebbing than flowing and she was increasingly driven to seek deeper answers. Her discoveries finally led the woman, Mary Baker Eddy, to write:

"The wintry blasts of earth may uproot the flowers of affection, and scatter them to the winds; but this severance of fleshly ties serves to unite thought more closely to God, for Love supports the struggling heart until it ceases to sigh over the world and begins to unfold its wings for heaven."

In writing those words in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures it's author wasn't describing a heaven dependent on death, but what Jesus pointed to as a heavenly kingdom within us. That is, within reach of each consciousness here and now.

A favourite poem of mine puts it this way:

Alone with God?

It wasn't a place where

I particularly wanted to be.

And yet

As I listen and hear that gentle voice

There comes this irresistible yielding

And a letting of grace

Determine place,

Until,

Repentant, rejoicing,

I find myself

Singing and dancing,

Companioned, and oh so glad

To be

Alone with God.

Around the time this poem was written I met its author - now we're poised to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. So valuing spiritual alone time doesn't necessitate becoming a hermit. Indeed, too much self-imposed isolation can be selfish. But finding daily time to feel at peace in the company of the divine can open our hearts to a more generous, healing joy.

That's quite an antidote to loneliness.

As theologian Paul Tillich wrote: "Language has created the word "loneliness" to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word "solitude" to express the glory of being alone."

Roy Orbison's plaintive cry on behalf of the lonely movingly echoes down the decades and, sadly, still resonates with millions.

A daily dose of spiritual solitude probably wasn't the answer he had in mind - yet many have found it can offer a palpable, powerful way to meet the underlying need we all have to feel loved.

Then, in that consciousness of being loved, of being divinely connected and cared for, loneliness can lose its hold.