I first felt lonely the summer after my first year at Yale. Well, I’m sure I had felt lonely at points before then, but those months were the first time that solitude shaped my days. I had taken an internship in New Orleans, a city far from home. I spent most of my time alone, reading or watching TV or taking long walks to nowhere in the Southern summer heat. I went the long way to the coffee shop because there was never anyone waiting and went to bed soon after dark. Happiness can be brisk elation or unhurried content, but loneliness is always slow.
I’m sure most of us have been alone at times when we’d rather be anything but. Yale can be a very lonely place, in all sorts of ways. There’s the ache of being away from family, of trying to build a new home from scratch. The social environment can feel isolating or transactionary, and it can take people a semester or two or more to find their footing. Sometimes loneliness is just the name of a single day, when it’s night by the time you leave the library or you eat dinner alone or the common room is empty. Added to this is the immense pressure to have the very brightest college years — with the grades, the internships, the social life — or at the very least, appear that you do.
I remember reading Marina Keegan’s essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” after my Froco gave us printed copies the first week of class. The feeling she described was everything I hoped to find at Yale. Initially, I suspected Marina of nostalgic exaggeration or just extreme luck. Now as a senior, I know what she meant. Yale is a contradiction: it is a wondrous place bursting with brilliant, kind minds, yet many find it so very hard. Likely, it is both these things to all of us, depending on the semester or the week or the day.
If you are lonely today or are carrying the hurt of lonely days past, I feel you. It’s essential that we get better at recognizing when we are lonely and learn to name that heavy feeling. Letting loneliness come to the surface allows us to ease our self judgment and invite curiosity. We can learn how loneliness feels in our bodies and minds, and we can ask what it might teach us about the nature of our desire for connection.
Once we are attentive to our loneliness, we will be less afraid to speak it out loud. When I ask “How are you?” at Yale, good or fine or busy are the usual replies. Never once have I heard “lonely.” Yalies will deliberate endlessly over the most precise wording for the thesis of an essay, yet so many of us can’t actually say how we feel. People tend to use tired or stressed to gesture towards hurt. These are poor synonyms for loneliness, but they are said so much that you could be convinced that those are the only two negative mental states that exist at this school.
I think this is because loneliness often makes us feel unworthy. In the past, I’ve worried that admitting to loneliness would mark me as pathetic or drive away the very connection I craved. Loneliness can seem like a personal failing, perhaps more so than most negative emotions, and we all know how Yale students feel about failure.
This reluctance to speak of loneliness contributes to the incorrect but easily believed perception that everyone is doing everything so much better than us. But you are never alone in feeling lonely. Psychology professor and Silliman Head of College Laurie Santos spoke at a 2019 World Economic Forum event that called loneliness among young people “an epidemic.” . A 2017 nationwide survey found that 65 percent of college students felt “very lonely” in the past year.
It takes courage to admit to struggling at a school where success can feel like the only option. But it’s courage we all need if we are to honor our emotional realities and create a community where care is freely given and received. We should strive to not shy away from the challenge of loneliness in ourselves and in those around us, to be honest when we are lonely and to be the type of friends that make others feel comfortable being honest in turn. I think when we more readily speak of our struggles, we will learn that our common ground is more than a shared campus. And to me, that feels a little like the opposite of loneliness.
ELIZABETH HOPKINSON is a Senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at email@example.com.