By Angie Lee
I sit alone in the dining hall from time to time. Before you begin to pity me, let me rephrase that sentence. I choose to sit alone in the dining hall from time to time.
My dorm, West Lag, has a long rectangular table that we have “claimed” in Lakeside Dining. I’m thankful for this table, as it is a place where I can see a friendly face at almost all hours that the dining hall is open. Our RAs designated this table for us on the first night of college, so that we could avoid that awkward feeling of looking around an area wondering “Where should I sit?” that we have all experienced at one point in our lives. It’s a physical place in the dining hall that I know I’m always welcome, a place where I can always expect to see someone I know — so much so that when someone not from West Lag sits there I’m thrown off.
Despite the fact that I always have the option to share a meal with a friend, I occasionally choose to sit at a separate table in another section of the dining hall. Sometimes, this is because I use the time to call one of my friends from high school to catch up. But other times, I sit alone without a specific reason — I’m just not in the mood to sit with a friend, no matter how much I love them, though that may sound weird. I just want to enjoy a meal alone, have my own space in a place like college where we eat, learn, and live with others, nearly 24/7.
Sitting alone in the dining hall has allowed me to reflect on a few things. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel self-conscious sitting alone. However, I’m not afraid of being alone: I’m afraid of looking alone, which is a huge difference. While I’m not self-conscious of sitting alone, I’m self-conscious of other people looking at me and thinking, “Aw, poor girl, she’s sitting alone.” I’m afraid of pity, in essence.
I’ve always thought of pity as a negative thing. It often separates individuals, as it creates an invisible line that divides the person that is pitying and the person that is being pitied. Someone sitting alone in a dining hall is a situation that inevitably evokes pity. As I am a wheelchair user, I imagine the sight of me sitting alone evokes even more pity — which is a whole other topic to discuss. Thus, when a stranger came up to me and asked if they could join me for the meal, my inner thoughts immediately became defensive. I understood that they were being incredibly kind and even brave by offering to sit with me. But I disliked the fact that they must have pitied me — did they not even consider the fact that I may have sat alone by choice?
Still, I accepted their offer to sit with me. We enjoyed a nice conversation on things ranging from the chicken we were currently feasting on to energy sustainability. As our conversation progressed, my view on pity changed. I’d been selfish — being frustrated when someone was merely performing an act of kindness. I still don’t think that pity is necessarily a positive attribute that humans have — however, I think pity is an inevitable attribute that humans have. And pity can lead to empathy, which links people instead of dividing them. Whether or not pity itself is a good thing or a bad thing, it is what allowed me to get to know a stranger that I probably would’ve never spoken to before. And that’s not a bad thing.
Contact Angie Lee at angielee ‘at’ stanford.edu.