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The Importance of Being Alone

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During my second week of junior year at Stanford, I found myself alone at a dingy cafe in Moscow drinking cheap Russian compote, listening to the breathy whir of the oven puffing heat into the frigid air. Outside people were coming and going while my headphones blasted The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from…?

It suddenly hit me that it had been a while since I had had the chance to be alone, sitting midday lost in a sea of foreignness, doing nothing. There is something very precious about moments like these– moments of solitude, when one finds company in herself, her thoughts freed from the Internet hive mind and allowed to wander about on its own. This is one reason why I had come all the way to Moscow this fall: to have time alone.

Yes, solitude. That was what I had been craving so desperately while I had been at Stanford, so much so that I decided I had to take a quarter off. Two years at Stanford have taught me that there is no place in the world where it is harder to find time alone. Much too often, there is no time to breathe, let alone think. It is as if the entire campus has been skillfully organized to prevent feeling alone: There is always a mixer somewhere on campus, a party, a meeting or an interview to go to. There is always something, someplace to go to, and we inundate our calendars to keep loneliness at bay. There simply isn’t time– nor reason– to be alone.

For some of us, this tugging need to be somewhere doing something has made us incapable of solitude. A friend once confided to me that she felt unbearably anxious and uncomfortable every time she found herself sitting alone. She refused to write her papers in her own room, preferring to do so at a friend’s place, and she would skip going to the dining halls if she couldn’t find a dinner buddy. The equivocation of aloneness with loneliness has become so entrenched that being alone is something to be averted at all costs, as if there is anything wrong with spending time with oneself.

In this age of hyper-connectivity, averting aloneness has become all too easy. With social media, everybody is practically one degree apart: All it takes is a Facebook message to find oneself in somebody’s company, if only virtually. The News Feed and other networking platforms have made it possible to be privy to friends’ lives even if we have no part in them, creating the illusion that we are somewhat “connected” to the experiences of many distanced others. A disturbing byproduct of being in constant company is that our minds, too, are never alone: They buzz with sound bites and opinions we conveniently lay claim to by clicking “share.” So much for independent thought. The canvassing of sound bites through social networking– online and off– is fast replacing sustained thought and introspection.

What happens when sociability leaves little room for solitude? What does it mean to be educated at a place where you are never alone, and where it takes enormous effort to find solitude?

I think it means we are at risk of losing an essential precondition for thinking deeply, or living the intellectual life that a liberal arts education is supposed to give us.

“In order to understand the world,” Albert Camus said, “one has to turn away from it on occasion.” The same might be said of understanding the self: If we are fearful of finding ourselves alone, then it is likely that we will never find ourselves.

There has always been a tug of war between the fear of loneliness and the need for solitude. Our language wisely captures the two sides of being alone– we have the word “loneliness” which carries with it the reverberations of isolation and seclusion, and “solitude,” which rings with a quiet freedom and tranquility. The former drives us into an endless quest for company, at the expense of time and space for solitude. At Stanford, the pressures to be constantly networked and connected easily eclipse the importance of being alone.

So amid the avalanche of emails asking for your attendance at this event and that event, take time to be alone. Wake up at 8 a.m. when it is dead quiet and savor the precious silence uninterrupted by crashing bikes. Make yourself a cup of hot chocolate to last through the book you meant to read but never got to. Grab that instrument you have neglected for too long. Go to Lake Lagunita before the sun sets, right down into the middle of the lakebed, and take a deep, deep breath. Feel the freedom of solitude, weightless as feathers. Put your gadgets away, be uncontactable for a time– your friends will understand.

Because being alone is okay. And if you came into college with the hope of understanding the world and finding yourself, Camus’ advice is good to keep in mind.

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.