During my second semester at Amherst, I spent most of my Friday nights at Rao’s Coffee. Around 7 p.m., I would head to town and spend a few hours working on transfer applications to colleges that, however vaguely, offered a better social scene. Or at least, offered something more like the social scene that I was looking for. I was unhappy at Amherst, and I was lonely at Amherst. It wasn’t clear then, and it isn’t clear now, that my unhappiness wasn’t directly and inextricably tied to my loneliness.
Professor Thomas Dumm’s recent article “Taking Yourself Seriously” in the Amherst Disorientation Guide, which was distributed to first-years during orientation and is available to all students online, covers, among other things, widespread campus loneliness of the sort I felt during my first year at the college. His exact point on the matter is a bit hard to pin down, but essentially he argues that loneliness, contrary to how it is currently being sold to us by the Office of Student Affairs, isn’t something to be overcome, but is an experience to be accepted. “There is,” he writes, “in fact no cure for [loneliness].” Rather, “[it] is itself a fundamental part of the contemporary human condition.” Loneliness, he argues, can “lead to a deep and thoroughly wonderful transformation of one’s life.”
To a degree, Professor Dumm’s definition, or redefinition, of loneliness makes sense. Being alone and unpreoccupied offers valuable time for personal self-reflection and critical examination. These are things colleges and universities — and especially institutions that support the value of the liberal arts — should encourage in their student bodies. If we leave Amherst no more conscious of our surroundings and ourselves than when we arrived, haven’t we missed an opportunity for personal growth? Perhaps more importantly, Professor Dumm attempts to draw a distinction between loneliness and despair, with the former being capable of and likely necessary for promoting critical self-examination and the latter being “toxic.” Loneliness becomes dangerous when it is perceived as a perpetual, inescapable state of being.
The issue with Professor Dumm’s conception of loneliness has to do with the context within which he bases his definition; that is, the context of the recent campus survey on mental health and wellness. With 76 percent of Amherst students reporting to have felt “very lonely” over the course of last year, the issue of loneliness is less a theoretical than a practical, salient issue for our campus. Although the survey did not define loneliness, it seems likely that most students who indicated having felt very lonely were not suggesting that they had experienced times of deep personal reflection. Rather, what they were indicating was probably something more in line with common, everyday understandings of loneliness — they were unhappy, alienated and despairing. They were lonely in a way they could not accept or cultivate because their experiences of loneliness were shot through with dysphoria. In this context, it makes no sense to discuss accepting loneliness, because the moment it becomes accepted, it is no longer negatively connoted, and so is no longer loneliness.
What I want to suggest, then, is not that we should outright reject the value of meditative loneliness that “Taking Yourself Seriously” suggests, but that we should frame it within a broader concern of taking ourselves seriously. While solitude and self-reflection are indispensable to the broader academic and social goals at the college, it is important that they exist within a context of a community that takes itself, and the relations between members and groups within itself, seriously. The first step toward this is, I think, rejecting the notion that loneliness of the sort exposed by the survey is acceptable in any capacity. There is absolutely no excuse for our community so seriously failing over three-fourths of its members. And it is the community, not the general administration or the Office of Student Affairs specifically, that bears the responsibility for such pervasive loneliness. We have to do better.
Prescriptive, comprehensive solutions to fight loneliness and build community are rarely well received or particularly effective. Nevertheless, while I won’t pretend to know the solution to the problem, I do think there’s one fairly easy and important way to begin to chip away at the alienation often seen and felt on campus: increased upperclassman engagement. As Amherst students get older, we have a tendency to withdraw ourselves from the more general and public life of the college to spend more time with preexisting friend groups and on individual projects. While neither of these is a problem in and of itself, they often have the effect of reducing the number of junior and senior students that first-years and sophomores have opportunities to interact with. In doing so, we curtail the possibility of cultivating meaningful relationships and mentorships among students of different class years, relationships that were vital to me, and many other students who I’ve spoken with, in beginning to feel as though I had a place within the Amherst community. These were the relationships that brought us out of our loneliness. So, simply put, as seniors and juniors at Amherst, we need to take more seriously our own role in cultivating a meaningful community. Get to know new students on campus: Grab coffee with them, give them advice when they need it and listen to them when they don’t. You may even make a few new friends along the way.
Professor Dumm asks that we take ourselves seriously. I agree. But I disagree that the best way to do so is to resign ourselves to a fate of loneliness, however defined. Communicating with one another, pushing through the feeling of alienation from our peers, is not and will never be easy, but if we are to take what we think and feel seriously, we ought to try. We live within the contemporary condition and so it is ours to shape — let’s make it one of vibrant community, not one of resigned separation.