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Togetherness

The minimalist composer John Cage had a catchphrase: “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” That’s me. I text my friends all the time, especially when I have nothing to say. I do this because I hate being alone. I stay for hours when I eat dinner at Terrace, not so much to procrastinate on work as to procrastinate leaving a social space for a carrel in Firestone that I find to be way too quiet.

For 20 years, I successfully avoided having to being alone for any extended period of time. Then, this fall, I studied abroad at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. There, for the first time, I was truly alone.

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At Princeton, we check in with each other. If my Arabic class starts at 9:00 a.m. and I’m not there by 9:10, I can count on one of my classmates to message me, “Ayna anti? [Where are you?]” If something suddenly concerns me at 11:30 a.m., I work through it with friends over lunch at noon. If I witness a flash mob in Frist at 4:00 p.m., I’m laughing about it with the Glee Club alto section half an hour later. We complain (with reason) about how insular our bubble can be, and yet I love that we are bound up in one another’s lives.

It was hard for me to find a comparable situation abroad. At SOAS, exchange students rarely join school societies; most are distracted by the city. Even London at large grapples with loneliness. In 2010, Britain’s Mental Health Foundation found that 60 percent of Londoners aged 18 to 24 frequently feel lonely. In 2015, the UK Office for National Statistics deemed Britain the “loneliness capital of Europe,” reporting that Londoners have fewer strong friendships and are less likely to know their neighbors than people in any other European town.

Given only a few months to build relationships, I felt acutely plagued by “London loneliness.” Some Wednesday morning in October, I woke up — alone in my single room in my central London flat — with an inexplicable feeling of dread. I got dressed silently, made and ate breakfast alone, and to my horror realized that I was accountable only to myself — with no classes on Wednesdays and the city at my disposal. An hour later I enjoyed art at the Barbican Centre, but debriefed it with no one. I sat arbitrarily in a café, perused four bookstores, and wandered home on a roundabout path, since no one was expecting me. The anonymity felt unnatural, like I was leading a secretive existence. This, in turn, felt purposeless. That night I wondered, “What’s the use of doing anything for myself if I’m not sharing my experiences with other people?”

But since study abroad should push our limits, I challenged myself, after that day, to be alone more often. This encouraged endless introspection. I became more perceptive to what I wanted and more committed to making myself happy. I completed class readings only when they interested me. I read eccentric British memoirs for pleasure. I didn’t feel guilty about sleeping eight hours each night. When I panicked after the U.S. election, I left bad media consumption habits in my flat and escaped to Ireland.

By December I had accepted that, for group-oriented folks like me, study abroad is inherently lonely. I didn’t let that preclude me from having a meaningful semester. I made peace with the realization that communities are my reason for being. I knew I would have to work harder to keep up my energy as long as I was away from Princeton. So I did.

On my plane back to the United States, I recalled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” a piece written five years ago in the Yale Daily News by the late Marina Keegan. Regarding being on Yale’s campus, Keegan wrote: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.”

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What I missed most about Princeton was this sense of abundance. Its energy can overwhelm us. Our campus communities are dissonant. But I never lose the feeling that I somehow belong with you all. I never study alone. I never eat meals alone. If I can’t sleep, I can walk outside at four in the morning and know that another insomniac or Street-goer or early riser will be somewhere out there, too, sharing at least a time and place with me.

While you’re still here, I hope that you likewise find moments of solitude. I hope that through them you come to appreciate some aspect of this community — like abundance that has welcomed you, some person you want to hug, some place or experience that makes any of this worthwhile.

Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson is a Near Eastern Studies major from San Francisco, Calif. She can be reached at myr@princeton.edu.

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