Although it may be embarrassing, I want to share a conversation I had with my friend last semester as we sat alone in the Smith Campus Center on a Friday night doing our homework. We mulled over the fact that in high school, it was easy to do one’s homework on a Friday night if need be. There was always a space at home that one could escape to and be guaranteed solitude. College’s Friday nights are different. Our rooms inevitably become loud, busy, and certainly not homework-friendly for those trying to finish papers due at midnight. And not finding space to do homework in solitude implies that our college fails to provide its students with the proper opportunity to find time alone, even when not doing homework. Therefore, it is up to students to make time in their days for solitude.
College is one of the few times in our lives when we are constantly surrounded by similarly aged people committed to similar goals for an extended period of time. For those of us living in doubles, it means that we can never be guaranteed solitude even in our own rooms. However, this is also why college is often considered the best time of our lives. It is one of the only times that we will constantly interact with people our own age.
I am not arguing against the benefits and pleasures of the close interactions with peers that college has to offer. Rather, I am arguing for the importance of solitude for anyone partaking in any lifestyle.
According to William Deresiewicz, an essayist and former English professor at Yale University, “Solitude has traditionally been a societal value … the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience.”
From Buddhism to Catholicism, time for self-reflection and self-contemplation has embedded itself deeply in religious cultures. Further, Deresiewicz argues, “We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.”
Indeed, it is often during these times alone that people learn the most about who they are. During a stay in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, I was challenged to spend five days in a room without leaving or contacting anyone, with only my thoughts to entertain me. Being alone is similar to studying one’s self: The more you study, the more you understand.
Solitude may even enhance those times spent surrounded by others. It sounds counterintuitive, but it can be harder to make time for yourself than for other people. According to my friends who live in singles, their space provides the perfect balance between exclusivity and inclusivity.
The country as a whole is moving toward a more isolated lifestyle. According to The New York Times, as of last year, “In prosperous American cities—Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and Minneapolis—40 percent or more of all households contain a single occupant. In Manhattan and in Washington, nearly one in two households are occupied by a single person.”
Many claim these statistics reflect a negative aspect of modern society, but Steven Kurtz, also of the Times, argues, “We all have private selves, of course, but people who live alone spend a good deal more time exploring them.” Amy Kennedy, who lives alone in High Point, N.C., puts a liberating spin on the phenomenon, describing it as “living without social checks and balances.”
With the rise of social media, being physically alone no longer necessitates solitude—it is easier to live alone while staying connected to old friends and family. Additionally, there is great value in living with others, as I have learned to live with a roommate. On the whole, though, it is up to the individual to forge the transition between physical aloneness to mental solitude.
Utsav Kothari PO ’14, who lives off campus, seems to be successful in doing this.
“I enjoy it because I feel that … I keep a good distance and monitor my contact[s]. Yes, I am still surrounded by people a lot more, being in a college environment, but I have adapted to that, and it has been pleasant so far,” Kothari said.
It is the responsibility of students to maintain a balance of solitude in their lives. This does not necessarily mean shutting ourselves in our rooms—there are many places and contexts in which we can find solitude. Now is the time to practice such a balance, for the simple fact that solitude is often hard to come by at college.