Despite popular belief, eating alone is OK

Freshman orientation lectures are like macaroni and cheese in the dining hall. They are hard to do well, but harder to do horribly. They leave one not upset, so much as vaguely numbed. But this rule, like all rules, has an exception: a truly awful orientation lecture in Woolsey Hall my freshman year, by a man who wrote a book called, “Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time.”

The title alone made me anxious. One more thing to worry about! Here we are, new freshmen at Yale, smothered in things we spent high school praying for, but now worry us: finding friendships with roommates, finding clubs and circles of friends to fill the post-high school void, reveling in the collision of Master’s Teas and master classes, and getting decent grades (you know, with all the time we have left over). Now, we even have to make sure we are never caught eating alone!

The author punctuated his remarks with sarcastic jabs, confirming my fears. “He had the right idea, but for the wrong reasons,” one classmate recalled. Citing the speech’s charge to network and to network early, this junior said the speaker “just didn’t seem genuine.”

The speaker may have meant well. Maybe he intended to implore freshmen to get to know people — not to stay fearfully cocooned in dorm rooms. In any case, the speaker is gone from Yale’s freshman lineup.

But one might wonder whether we have yet alleviated the broader concerns for which “Never Eat Alone” is an emblem. In my last column, I examined several trends: acquiring dozens or hundreds of Facebook friends before arriving on campus; acquiring fistfuls of colorful fliers at the Freshman Bazaar; acquiring numerous “rush” opportunities from a cappella groups, fraternities and Yale’s countless other organizations. There is just so much to acquire.

These trends add up to a freshman frenzy to plan the perfect, instant college social life. After years of watching a show about (and even called) “Friends,” we may find ourselves shuddering when our own lives fall short.

Facebook, granted, helps with guest lists for events and parties. Yale’s cornucopia of clubs is one of this great university’s greatest blessings. The question is whether we engage in this ramped-up bustle because we love it dearly, warts and all, or because we fear being left behind. The answer is a bit of both.

Is it really true that one should never eat alone?

Some of my fondest memories are of times I ate alone. I will remember good times with friends, but I will also remember quiet breakfasts in the Saybrook dining hall. I will remember the peace and the details: feeling warm in the early sunlight, clear windowpanes aglow like stained glass; looking up at the portraits of past Saybrook masters, wondering if they too were once uncertain 20-somethings in dining halls; thinking of friends I had met for lunch at certain tables, and things we had said, or things we might have said.

Not all moments must be saved for solitude. But some moments can be. Three reasons why come to mind:

The first reason concerns how we relate to ourselves. We all need to know what kind of person we are when everybody else leaves the room. If we are always in rooms with other people, that is hard to know.

Another reason for solitude — seemingly paradoxically — concerns how we relate to others. Our innermost motivations can often drive how we treat people. Moreover, our deepest selves are what our close friends love about us. Their selves are what we love about them. And these selves go beyond the borders of Facebook profile categories to affections, fears, values and yearnings — the things everybody has, the things that are still on our minds as we fall asleep at night.

Always eating alone — the other extreme — is as unnecessary as never eating alone. But here is something I wish someone had told me my freshman fall: It is OK to walk into a dining hall without having previously arranged to meet someone.

To do so need not be uncool loneliness. It does not even have to be solitude. It can also be social serendipity. Kids we meet not because they are in our clubs, but just because we are all people — they are there and we are there — can become close friends. Or, if they are people with whom we just share one nice lunch, people who come from somewhere different and from whom we may learn something, then that is OK too.

The final reason for solitude concerns what we are doing with this thing called life that we seem to be heading into, often faster than we had planned. The problem with the vision of “Never Eat Alone” is that one is always doing. Rarely can one simply be. A meal alone can feel like a cesspool of inadequacy. A meal with a potential friend — or worse, friend-cum-success in “networking” — risks being merely the predecessor to the next meal with said friend.

The key is neither to eat alone, nor never to eat alone. The key is to live without fear of eating alone. That freedom spares social life from our generation’s otherwise ubiquitous pressures of achievement. It suggests that what makes life good is not some thing in life that we crave — it is life itself. The implication is that independence of the self, far from curtailing human connections, is the basis for them.

Time alone, simply to be, and to be oneself, is its own kind of joy. Then, when we spend time with friends, we do so not because we need to, but because we want to. A moment in good company is free of straining dependently on the future for value. The moment — each moment, a lifetime of moments — is wonderful in the present.

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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