Marina Keegan ’12 wrote about “the opposite of loneliness” (KEEGAN: “The opposite of Loneliness,” May 27, 2012), a feeling she could not quite capture in one word, a feeling she was afraid of losing after graduating from Yale. She wrote about the small groups that we surround ourselves with — societies, clubs, a cappella groups — and the fear associated with losing all of that.
And this fear, maybe more so than our bureaucratic tendencies, is why we schedule each meal as time to see old friends, why we book up our calendars and why we join more clubs than we can possibly manage. Many of us are, on some level, afraid of being alone.
A few days ago, I asked my friends if they ever get the chance to be alone.
“Really alone, not on your phone and not listening to music,” I clarified.
“When I’m asleep,” one laughed. “Or in the bathroom.”
“There are so many people to get to know here. It feels like a waste of time to spend a meal alone,” said another.
This phenomenon certainly isn’t unique to Yale. Universities frequently cite the correlation between student dissatisfaction and isolation. In a recent study conducted at the University of Virginia, two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women chose to subject themselves to electric shock rather than be alone with their thoughts.
But what could be so terrifying about being alone? Why do we feel such a pull to be surrounded by company?
Maybe many of us yearn for belonging. We search for community to find understanding.
But being understood and being alone are not mutually exclusive. Introspection bridges solitude and understanding. Groups from the Puritans to the modernists have sworn by the virtues of self-examination, and thinkers like Marcus Aurelius, Descartes and Virginia Woolf have prescribed solitude as the best way to understand ourselves.
Academics today tend to agree.
Sociologist Jack Fong of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona studies solitude. He thinks that people experiencing mental health issues should take some time to separate themselves from their surroundings. “When people are experiencing crisis it’s not always just about you: It’s about how you are in society,” he says. When people step outside of their social spheres, they’re better equipped to understand how their communities, their friends and their families may be affecting their mental health, positively or negatively.
For introverts like me, taking a couple of hours every week to be alone can be the difference between mental breakdowns and mental clarity. I’ve often felt that constant social interactions at Yale become exhausting. I remember being overwhelmed during orientation week my first year because I was constantly surrounded by people — my FroCo group, newly made friends, well-wishers and new faces — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. A little more time to reflect at the end of the day or to explore New Haven on my own might have alleviated that.
Even now, a year later, I feel pressure to go out with a large group of friends a few times each week; to meet up with my friend group for lunch and dinner; and to seem social, funny, engaged, invested, exciting and affable all at once. Being alone for a few meals each week or on some Saturday nights can take that pressure off.
When asked for his best piece of advice for Yale students, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., said, “Give yourself more unstructured time. […] It’s useful to just sit down and think and see where your mind goes.”
I have to agree. Some of my happiest moments at Yale have been in the hammock under the Ginkgo tree in Timothy Dwight College — moments when I let my mind wander.
But not everyone agrees that college students need time alone. Goucher College, for example, is on a different page. The college is constructing freshman dorms designed to maximize time spent in communities. Goucher will build bathrooms farther away from freshman suites, so freshmen must pass multiple other rooms on a daily basis. They hope this change will inspire freshmen to befriend their hallmates. They’re also building fewer singles and more doubles and quads. They’re making it harder — nearly impossible — to be alone.
We don’t need to build more doubles or move our bathrooms. We don’t need to join sports teams and clubs or pack our schedules with social interactions either. We need to be comfortable without a dozen communities cheering us on every day, and we need to be content with solitude.
We need a couple of refreshing minutes every day to just think, unplugged and alone. A long walk up Hillhouse, a bike ride around New Haven, an afternoon on the Green spent reading. A few precious moments each day to pursue the opposite of loneliness: solitude.
Keera Annamaneni is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org