Since entering Stanford, more than ever before, I have been greeted with some variation of that concerned accusation, the same one your piano teacher gave you when you had been itching to quit: “I never see you anymore…where have you been?”
Nowadays, I pass off this question with a toothy smile and that rehearsed but accepted excuse – I’m so sorry, busy quarter, you know how things are at Stanford – but the truth is I have been in my room, reading tweets from Sylvia Plath, watching bad TV on Netflix, painting awful landscapes, writing stories that no one will read, all by myself. And I loved it.
I am afraid to admit to my solitude, to sing an ode to being alone. The Internet reminds me that loneliness can kill you. Following that supposedly undeniable fact that humans are social creatures, these reports rank being lonely as lethal as obesity. They warn that loneliness is on the rise in our postmodern age. Its cause is debated (no, it’s probably not Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, you nostalgics) and its cure has been the subject of many a self help-book. We dub lonely people introverts, recluses, homebodies, hermits who retreat to their cave. I am struck by how inadequately these titles describe what I really feel. In fact, sometimes I want to be anywhere but home.
It is confusing to talk about loneliness and its prettier sisters, solitude and aloneness, in part because semantics get in the way. Britney’s loneliness is killing her, but, to be clear, Kelly Clarkson is not lonely when she’s alone. Thoreau did his thing in the woods. According to the World Wide Web, solitude is good and alone time is great (though you don’t want to end up alone). Ultimately though, feeling lonely is criminal. It is an admission of incompleteness. “All by myself” no longer rings with the same pre-school pride as in, I used the potty all by myself. Instead, we resist it, lamenting that we don’t want to be…you know how it goes.
How did we get here?
All-frosh housing is touted as a kind of paradise. At times, I love my freshman dorm and at others I can’t stand it. The frosh community is both supportive and suffocating. Meals together at the dining hall are mostly fine, but Mafia was too overwhelming, and I left stressed and upset and in need of boba (or maybe I’m just a sore loser). Overall, I am glad to live where I live, but, like a commitment-fearing lover, I just need some space. It’s funny how you can feel lonely when you are constantly surrounded by people. I am no therapist or mental health expert, but I think this paradox is a part of the problem. Of course, it is important to have a support system. Yet, in the dorm, even in the comfort of my own room, there is nowhere, unless my roommate is out, to mope or sulk or wallow without being bombarded with so-called well-meaning questions like “Are you okay?” (Yeah, I just cry for the moisturizing effects) and “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Lately, I have been crying more often than usual. Listening to “Landslide” on repeat, watching that seminal episode of Grey’s Anatomy, going to the San Francisco Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet, all of these moments left my cheeks damp in a very different way than when I FaceTimed my mom during the first week of school (aka my Blue Period). I can laugh about these teary-eyed episodes now because this type of sadness lacks any personal stake; it is safe, contained and explained, and often feels like the only acceptable way to release my Feelings. I know, I know. I should try to be more vulnerable and stop hiding my emotions, but who wants to be the one to enforce quiet hours when the party just got started – i.e. kill the vibe? Being alone lets me feel sad without feeling guilty. I lap in solitude because it is during these hours that I do not need to apologize for being the greasy, melodramatic snot that I am.
Still, this is a somewhat incomplete picture of my alone time. Although sometimes there is an element of angst, solitude can also be sweet. Last summer, when my friends left for college, I went solo in suburbia. I reserved a table for one at the Cheesecake Factory, single-handedly pushed through pre-teens at Forever21, and drove down the 405 in the non-carpool lane (I’m a monster) with the windows down and the radio high. These are some of best memories I have of that summer. But without my friends as witnesses, I wonder if I have made it all up, or, perhaps, told myself how great things were until I started to believe it. Fake it ‘til you make it, right?
There is more at play here than some coping mechanism, me thinks. We become squeamish at the thought of being alone because the memories we make alone can’t be confirmed by another party. There are no cozy, around the table recollections, no “remember when’s,” no eyewitnesses – only that unreliable “I.” I was here, I was there, I did this. That oh-so important enterprise that is human bonding becomes complicated because we have no shared experiences in which to find equal footing. We are left to string together our weird, individual accounts, which can spark a conversation but not sustain it (e.g. NSO: “I’m from Southern California.” “Oh, I used to know a girl from SoCal, but now we don’t talk anymore.” End scene).
However, there are many who continue to aerosol-spray into our atmosphere the one-size-fits-all mantra that humans are social creatures. They limit “social” to mean karaoking in the basement, which makes me feel ashamed of the happier hours I spent alone in my room. They privilege physical, face-to-face contact. They can’t fathom that, while alone in our rooms with only the glow of computer screens staring back at us, we can forge friendships via e-mail and send texts that can make the heart go lub dub as much as a hand-written love letter. Because of this “humans are social” rally cry, we desperately try to keep solitude at bay; we form study groups, we walk in freshmen packs (guilty, but repenting), we go on Ski Trip. We have been too far catapulted into the pursuit of the opposite of loneliness to realize that solitude is not necessarily just for the sad or the angsty or the elderly. No matter how much LifeAlert tries to convince us otherwise, being alone is not always a death sentence. Emily Bronte laid lonely on a desert moor, and she ended up alright.
As the year approaches to an end, we freshman move onto the fabled sophomore slump, seniors enter the great unknown, and everyone else grows a little older. We will all be confronted with the prospect of loneliness, sooner or later, by choice or by circumstance. Whatever the case may be, I would like to hope that solitude can bring its own kind of solace. If all else fails, we can look to the humble hermit crab, which shrivels up and dies when its soft underbelly is exposed for too long. Perhaps, coming out of your shell isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Photo courtesy of here.