One night in the first semester of my first year, I sat under a willow tree on Hillhouse Avenue and cried with two of my suitemates. The shadows of the tree’s branches tangled on the ground, a loose-knit blanket of darkness. In this pocket of catharsis, I rediscovered every emotion that had been blown astray in the whirlwind of freshman years. I missed home. I missed my parents and my old friends. I felt like a failure in my seminars, where I couldn’t seem to speak up with a meaningful contribution. I felt like a failure on my Instagram feed, which was littered with photos of massive groups sharing drunken smiles—contrast with the three of us, on a Friday night, no parties to go to.
I felt lonely. A pure, profound, all-consuming loneliness.
I hadn’t thought that to be possible at Yale. Before getting here, I, like many others, had grown obsessed with Marina Keegan’s “Opposite of Loneliness” essay. She had written it before her 2012 commencement, for a special Yale Daily News issue. “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale,” she wrote. That line ingrained itself into my memory, the sentiment becoming gospel. I would never feel lonely at Yale, I imagined, as if the gothic stone walls sat alongside impenetrable barriers of friendship and good times. Under the willow tree, I felt tricked.
Yale breeds a distinct form of loneliness. It lies at the junction of FOMO and imposter syndrome. It cloaks the campus like a thin layer of fog, gaining opacity at your most vulnerable moments. When you fail an assignment. When you eat alone at the dining hall while the group next to you loses it over a convoluted inside joke. When you walk back from the library on a late Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday night, muffled bass tones and distant laughter haunting every street corner.
Sometimes, that fog fades to near-invisibility. In the years since that night under the willow tree, I have shared moments—too many moments—that captured the opposite of loneliness. Being that noisy group in the dining hall, taking up space for far too long, dirty plates and napkins collecting in a pile. Losing our minds to that song. Hiking up East Rock to catch the sunrise. Tucking life updates into walks to class and common room run-ins. Sitting on the couch, conversation topics blending and blurring, time trickling from midnight to sunrise. Being together, in all its chaos.
Loneliness flourishes in dissatisfaction, our insecurity that everyone else is doing better things with more people. Yale, bringing thousands of anxious, competitive, naïve teenagers into inescapable proximity, actually creates the perfect conditions for the emotion. But in this precarious test tube, we build our own barriers. We build them with each other.
And sometimes, we build them in ourselves. Last year, the pandemic—crazy, isn’t it, that we went to college in a pandemic—instilled in us a baseline emotion of loneliness. I spent many nights alone in my room, a lavender-scented candle spreading weak light on the walls, unable to focus on anything except for a general feeling of emptiness. All the while, Yale was relentless, hurling readings, tests, and extracurricular obligations in my direction. I felt stagnant. I started to go on long walks. Central campus. Downtown. The Divinity School. All the way up Orange Street, busy retail hubs giving way to idyllic houses. On these walks—even though I was alone, even though six feet of distance buffered me from all other humans—I felt no loneliness. I felt no dissatisfaction, no insecurity. I only felt sunlight.
We graduate as twenty-somethings, still anxious and competitive and pretty naïve. But we’ve come so far. I speak up in seminars. I no longer care about using Instagram to brag about my wide circle of acquaintances. Which isn’t to say that I no longer feel loneliness—and TikToks and magazine articles and tweets tell me that post-grad life brings a whole new behemoth of isolation. Yale, however, has shown us that loneliness can be fended off.
I stayed in New Haven last summer, when we emerged, newly vaccinated, from our dark rooms. The air buzzed with a desperation for closeness. I kept going on those walks. Down the sidewalks, in between the shadows of trees. I took one walk right before sunset, trekking from my downtown apartment to Hillhouse Avenue. There, a gentle breeze brushed against my skin. A palette of green and blue and gold—so much gold—colored the world. I felt nothing but the quiet feelings of calm, contentment, gratefulness. I walked and walked and walked, forward and up.
Isabella Li is a graduating senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.