I turned 22 last Friday. I had seen it coming — birthdays tend to fall on the same day every year — but the first “Happy Birthday” still took me a little by surprise. It appeared on my Facebook on Thursday, a while before midnight, from a friend in a different time zone.
It was followed by other posts: at 12:16 a.m., from a guy in my journalism class; at 1:03 a.m., from a girl who worked on a play with me, back when I worked on plays; at 2:46 a.m., from someone who ate a roasted goat with me in Kenya; all the way to 11:04 p.m., from a friend of a friend who graduated in 2011.
It was nice. I appreciated their words. It takes two seconds to type, “Happy birthday!” on someone’s wall, I’m aware, but still: It was heartwarming. Or maybe not “heartwarming.” Reassuring — reassuring to know that there are people out there who remember me (even though they probably wouldn’t remember my birthday if Facebook hadn’t told them).
Maybe it’s because I live off campus, or because I don’t sing a cappella or play on a team or spend Wednesday nights at chapter, but sometimes being at Yale feels lonely. Or maybe not “lonely.” How could I feel lonely? All I have to do is walk outside to find hundreds of people taking classes in the same buildings and buying Majorska from the same liquor stores and leaping over the same puddles on College Street.
Not loneliness, then, but something a little like the feeling I had when I was six and my parents enrolled me in swimming lessons. The club where these lessons took place had two pools: a small one for beginners, where I could touch my toes to the bottom even at the far end, and a larger, deeper one, for more advanced swimmers.
I spent two years at that club, but I always refused to graduate to the deeper pool. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of drowning — by then I had learned how to swim — but I was afraid of the depth, of the helplessness that came from being unable to touch my toes to the bottom without anything — or anyone — to hold on to.
Being at Yale is like that but worse. Most of us come here at 18 and turn 19 and 20 and 21 and 22, and, as the years mount, so do the responsibilities.
There are tests to be taken and papers to be written and jobs to be gotten. The deep pool begins to feel more like an ocean. It’s as though someone had given you a pair of floaties and pushed you off a boat somewhere between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands. You know you’re going to make it — the floaties will keep you above water, and the South Equatorial Current will eventually land you in Papua New Guinea — but the journey will probably be rough. And out in the Pacific, rocked and churned by twenty-foot waves, with only sea slugs and sperm whales for company, there’s a good chance you’ll begin to feel something that’s a lot like loneliness.
The irony is that we’re all, every single one of us, floundering in the Pacific. It’s not like we’ll drown — our floaties are FroCos and masters and deans and emails reminding us to write our senior essays. We will, in all likelihood, graduate. But the certainty that we’ll make it through doesn’t assuage the questions we ask ourselves along the way: Does my professor think I’m dumb? What would my parents say if they saw me right now? Will I hear back from Bridgewater? From the girl I met last night at Box?
We all have these tiny nagging anxieties lodged somewhere deep inside us, nibbling away at our stomachs. It’s a part of college that we all share privately but never talk about publicly, and it can consume us so it becomes easy to forget that, really, we’re not alone at all.
It doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is a hello on the street, an occasional email to an estranged friend or maybe this: Next time you check Facebook, see if any of your friends are celebrating a birthday.
Wish them a happy one.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.