How to Deal with Loneliness

Urban Hermits Miss the Fun


I think everyone knows what a hermit is… we might imagine the details differently, but almost all of us see him as an unkempt loner. Not dirty, but unattended. We imagine his loneliness.

I experimented with being a hermit, even an ascetic, and I thought those experiences were great topics for articles. So I have been talking with Ela and my brother Frank about it… they keep me from getting trapped in my own thinking.

how to deal with loneliness
A Hermit, Not Ascetic

What does it mean to be a hermit? Can you be one downtown? I always thought of hermits as recluses… people that, for one reason or another, removed themselves from the civilized world. Both Frank and Ela offered a different point of view.

The Difference

We found clarification in the dictionary. A hermit is a person living in seclusion, not necessarily outside society. Ascetics seek total isolation and reject the material comforts of life. So you can be a hermit in the city, but living alone in the wilderness leans more toward being ascetic.

With all the hustle and bustle of city life, it’s probably not uncommon for people to play the urban hermit. Close the door on the apartment Friday evening and disconnect until Monday… that is not hard to imagine.

But what is it like to be completely disconnected? What is it like to live alone and isolated from the world for months or years at a time?

Simplot Ranch on the Middle Fork
See the Cabin? Lower Loon & the Middle Fork

No people; without human contact. Not a grocery store, gas station, occupied building or full-time resident for dozens of miles in any direction. Thirty miles to the nearest dirt road. A few trails but mostly the isolation of the largest wilderness in the Lower 48.

While I am neither reclusive nor anti-social, I have probably spent more time utterly alone than anyone you know… so while I may be neither hermit nor ascetic, I have substantial experience as both.

I won’t wear you down with the backstory; suffice it to say I needed to make big changes in my life. I’d been tweaking it for a few years but finally had to face facts: the old life was gone. It was time to build a new one.

Outside the Comfort Zone

Forever fascinated with monks, ascetics, and shamans, I decided to become one. Why not? However nonsensical to everyone else, it was a life I imagined I wanted to live… so I seized the opportunity to live it. And like everything else I’ve ever done in my life, I went to the edge. And a step or two further.

At first, a hermit; a man secluded in a small apartment in a city. It took time to walk away from my previous life honourably. When my obligations were met, I sold or donated all my possessions. I mention that divestment, that minimalization because it was a big step on the path of my transition from hermit to ascetic.

I took the final step when I left Texas in September 2013 to walk across the Rockies alone. And, until my return to small-town Challis, Idaho in the spring of 2020, I lived off-the-grid… either in the Frank Church Wilderness or within a day’s walk of its boundaries. And for months at a time, no contact with the outside world. No cell phone; only satellite communication and I was often without that.

Can You Imagine?

I floated between existing as a hermit and an ascetic. Experientially, I’ve earned an Honorary Doctorate in Isolation. And I know very well the difference in being alone and being lonely. They are not the same things.

Loneliness is a mood. Just like any other mood, we can languish in it… make it a habit, if we choose. Some people for reasons they don’t understand seem to prefer a sad or lonely mood. I guess it’s easier than making change. Somehow they got in a bad state of mind and will not let go of it.

But it’s a mood. An emotional state. And you can exchange it for a different mood. Most people wait for moods to pass, but you don’t have to wait. You can change your mood; it’s called self-control.

When I got lonely – and I did – I recognized it for what it was and made a conscious effort to shake it. To replace it with a different emotion. I embraced an ascetic life because I was tired of being unhappy, tired of the moods imposed on me by the news, the office, the city life. And who could I blame for my unhappiness in the wild? My loneliness? I chose to be alone, so I learned to manage that emotion.

I had hobbies. I had work to do, as well. I stayed occupied; not sitting mindlessly in a dark cave waiting for life to pass, but actively engaged with my surroundings. I constructed my moods.

Deal with Loneliness

If I needed conversation, I could talk to animals. Or God, which I preferred. One reason to choose an ascetic life is to remove anything and everything between me and My Maker. And I talked to myself without reservation.

Talking to myself was like thinking out loud. Sometimes my thoughts made less sense when verbalized, and I’d laugh and gently correct me. And sometimes the sheer joy of living was expressed out loud with a laugh. It was, in fact, a most agreeable life.

Loneliness, when it did come, was a feeling of fasting in my heart. Though I might be hungry at the time for companionship, I knew it wouldn’t last. The burning emptiness would fade when I got outside, when I saw my place in the greater scheme of things.

Patrick Taylor in the Frank Church Wilderness
Finding My Place in the Natural World

Another benefit of ascetic living over hermitage is the immersion in nature. Face-to-face with God’s world, there is no denying it’s reality. In the city, we can and do put our spin on things… but there’s no spin in the real world. The truth reveals itself every day.

I observed the natural pace of life. The ebb and flow of activity, the priorities of Nature and how they manifest themselves in different communities in the wild. The ascetic is always on time, never late, never stressed by the abstract of Time. I lived with the seasons, learned by observing and following my instincts.

Quiet, not Silent

Most memorable was the Quiet, not to be confused with Silence which is the absence of sound; they are not the same things. There are sounds it seems that are meant to be heard and felt on a quiet day… sounds that pacify the mind and soul. Orchestrated perfectly by the Great Potential, quiet is a comforting bonus of being alone whereas silence feels lonely.

The thing I miss most about the wilderness is the quiet. Even in rural Poland, in our house on the hill outside of town, it is never truly quiet. Not even for a few minutes… and I used to spend weeks in it. There is no better remedy for a busy mind than natural bio-feedback. As an ascetic, I had to get in tune with the frequency of my surroundings. I had to quiet my mind to fit in with the natural world.

It’s not just an escape; isolation is a remedy. It strips away the clutter and clang of life so that one can once again appreciate the joy of being. Simply being you… playing your best part in your world. It is a key ingredient in the recipe for Happiness.


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3 comments

  1. I spent last summer at the family farm and absolutely got back in touch with myself and nature. Trails in the woods, clear brooks and old dirt country roads. Im making the move to build a cabin there this summer and pursue a quieter life. Plant a garden, go bird watching, trail hiking and my passion for cooking in cast iron. Thank you for sharing your inspirations Pat…..

  2. “Loneliness, when it did come, was a feeling of fasting in my heart.” I’ve never heard it put this way but it’s so on point, an emptiness in the heart instead of the stomach.

  3. Congratulations on this life, the subject and the way he described it. I think it’s easier to become an urban hermit these days than an ascetic, to renounce everything that the modern world has to offer.Great story.

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