Dear Santa: For Christmas, I’d really like some solitude, long beautiful hours to stretch empty before me whenever and however I want.
I know you’ve been keeping tabs on me, so I get why you might think this a strange request. I’m pretty extroverted. I’m notorious among my friends for refusing to eat alone and my roommate last year used to refuse to go to meals with me just so I would have to be by myself. I love studying in Frist because I’m guaranteed to find someone to share a table with. I check my Facebook obsessively and my phone almost as frequently. I have a Twitter, a Tumblr and maybe even still a Google Plus page.
But I’m not sure this is my most authentic incarnation. You probably remember this better than I do, but, as I recall it, my first views of the world were formed from behind my mother’s legs. The social, outgoing version of myself that comes out at school is a product of years of actively forcing myself — or being forced by my fed-up mother — to do the socializing that scares me so.
At school, my social-butterfly self never rests. I surround myself with people I love, go out and tweet witty things. I seem pretty happy, but it’s a lurching happiness, fueled by egotism. It makes me feel good about myself when I know people like me, when I get invited to parties, when my inbox is full. These feelings are addicting — a sudden, sugary rush followed like a bad hangover by melancholy when the texts don’t come.
I’m lucky to have secure relationships I am confident in, that I know I can depend on to be there for me whenever I want to get a meal or complain about how stressed I am. I’m in abnormal psychology this semester, and we talk a lot about how important successful social interactions are for normal psychological functioning. People who feel isolated, lonely and unloved are far more likely to commit violence against themselves or others, develop depression and have other psychological disorders. The University knows this and encourages us to be social by emphasizing the residential colleges and Outdoor Action and Reunions. They want us to be happy, and research shows that a fulfilling social life is the way.
There are ways to be alone that don’t mean being lonely, though. There are kinds of solitude filled with thoughts and feelings just as rewarding as conversations with friends. It’s hard for me to remember, here, how nice isolation can be. Other people are so much fun, and they’re so nice, and they’re lovable and talented. They sing and dance and hold panels and invite me to watch them, and of course I want to go. They’re always around — in libraries, in dining halls, even in my room.
But I think real happiness — true happiness — can’t only be about your relationships with others. At the risk of sounding like Oprah, it mostly has to be about your relationship with yourself, which is hard to cultivate when you’re constantly surrounded by other people.
Luckily, a long break is approaching, and I have a lot to think about, Santa. I have to choose — or not choose — an eating club, which feels a little like choosing an identity but probably won’t be. I also have to choose a major, which probably will. Most importantly, though, I have to reboot, recharge, remember why I’m at Princeton in the first place and think a little harder about who I want to be when I leave.
So, Santa, this is what I want: After having mindlessly spiraled myself into a depression by looking at the profile pictures of everyone I think is prettier/cooler than I am, I want to find the self-control to deactivate my Facebook. Around day four, I want to work the gym back into my schedule. By the end of the week, I should be reading books again. Make sure I read through dinner, just like I used to, and emerge, confused, to a kitchen full of dirty dishes and a full family looking exasperatedly at me. If you can give me all this, by day eight I’ll be writing again, for myself: the true, complicated things I’ve been meaning to write all year and not letters to you.
Susannah Sharpless is a sophomore from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at email@example.com.