This piece is inspired by Thomas Dumm’s article “Taking Yourself Seriously,” which appeared in the Amherst Disorientation Guide.
I write this letter to the few: the few students on campus who struggle under the weight of participating in too many extracurriculars. I write as someone who has walked this path, and who had diverged from it. I also write as a human speaking on the aspect of our condition that is loneliness.
I say I write this letter for the few, because from my observations, most students are not as heavily involved in extracurriculars as others perceive them to be. We have no official rosters or tallies of student participation in our Registered Student Organizations (RSOs), or if we do, they are not public. I thus am forced to draw from personal experience, and the experience of others, to support my assertion that ultimately, I do not believe the vast majority of students exceed four clubs/sports per semester, and that is a very generous estimate. My letter is not addressed to this vast majority of students on campus and is not directly applicable to them. Instead, I focus my message towards the students who are so heavily involved in campus activities that they find themselves in membership of more than four RSOs.
To these students, I say that if you seek a solution to loneliness by participating more in RSOs, and campus life in general, stop immediately and disabuse yourself of the notion that more participation means less loneliness. The more time you sink into RSOs and student life, the less time you have to reflect on yourself and to devote to your personal life, including your individual friends and family. Furthermore, the more you participate in student activities, the more unapproachable and busy you will appear to others. Indeed, after a certain point of campus engagement, you will begin to alienate yourself more so than if you had simply kept to yourself. That is because the more you participate in RSOs, more so than the average student, the farther you depart from being an ordinary student on campus. After a certain point, you become an outlier. People will begin treating you differently. You are now someone who is everywhere on campus. You are now that guy who is juggling all of the campus’s student activities on your back. You are a busybody. You are someone who is everywhere, and simultaneously, nowhere at the same time.
It is intimidating. People approach you less often, ask you to accompany them to social events less often. You will go out to eat less often, interact with friends less often. While you juggle the responsibilities of your clubs, your dormmates and close friends will travel the campus and town, browse shops, watch movies. They will live out the “college experience.” And you, as a busybody, are often assumed to be too busy to come. The invitation will not be extended, even if you are not in reality actually busy. The important distinction to make is that it is not important whether or not you yourself are busy, but whether others perceive you so. Once they assume you are a busy person, you wear that association for as long as you continue to perpetuate it, consciously or unconsciously. As long as you wear that aura, you are unapproachable. You are too busy. In your attempt to bring yourself closer to more and more people by participating in more and more activities, the people have shied away from your overeager embrace. They are suspicious and untrusting of your claims that you are free.
It is no wonder they are so distrustful. By nature, we humans are assumed to specialize in commitments. When discussing on whether or not to single or double major, a professor once commented that double majors (and triple majors) was a sign of “a lack of focus” on the student’s behalf. Unable to commit to either, double majors (and triple majors) choose their paths as a result of their inability to truly find a solid career foundation. In this way, the professor argued, companies and corporations were actually suspicious of triple majors (and double majors). It was an indicator of a generalist, ambivalent mind.
Our world is a world of specialization. Humans specialize. It is ingrained within our economic teachings and within our history. No human civilization has existed where every person adopted a generalist role. There were always hunters, child-bearers, farmers, carpenters — specialization is what enabled our civilization to move forward as it did. We relied on bakers for bread, hunters for meat. If every individual had to learn everything for himself, he would spend his entire life learning how to slice bread. Civilization would cease to exist.
It is thus no wonder that, because specialization is so deeply ingrained within our culture, we inherently gravitate to and are more willing to trust people who are more picky and selective with their time. We trust the experts, the people who commit to a few things at a time. We weigh their testimonies with greater trust in court. We listen to specialists over generalists. We trust the reflections of ourselves, for we are all cruel misers of love and affection. We love our lovers more than we love any other human being. We love our children greater than all other children of the world. We mete and we dole unequal amounts of love to our passions. With what limited time we have, we allocate our time unequally to the causes we support the most. It is devoting your time to a chief passion that makes an individual respected and admired. It is this behavior that brings you closer to other like-minded individuals, forging friendships and bonds otherwise impossible had you tried to divide your time equally amongst four or more club commitments. This is where you will find a departure from the ocean of loneliness on campus. This is where you will find love and friendship.
Thus to you who are engaged heavily, I ask for you to take all of this into consideration when embarking on your journey through Amherst. There is no harm in a healthy balance of extracurriculars. However, seek not this engagement for the sake of drawing yourself closer to others. For a want of friendship, mete not time amongst hundreds, expecting to throw yourself at every club in hopes that you will find friends in at least a few them. Rather, spend a few golden hours with a few, small group of individuals — that is your departure from loneliness.