Loneliness and the liberal arts

Opinion by Ethan Chua
Oct. 24, 2016, 12:04 a.m.

The first few weeks starting at Stanford are lonely ones, though we don’t tend to admit it. Instead, the loneliness shows in smaller ways — long walks to downtown Palo Alto for boba with headphones on, a Marguerite ride where we lose count of the stops, Friday nights when it’s difficult to sleep with the music from the latest frat party booming through the windows. It’s got me wondering why, on a campus we half-jokingly refer to as paradise, the feeling of loneliness sinks in so deep in so many days.

I found answers in an unexpected place, while recently reading an essay by sociologist Georg Simmel on the life of man in the metropolis. Though the language was dense and academic, and the reading was required, the words struck a chord with me as I flipped through them in the Burbank basement.

Simmel discusses how, in the metropolis, man faces an unprecedented degree of freedom. Instead of having a social role handed down to him, he is free to pursue whatever profession or specialization he chooses; in fact, this uniqueness is what provides him value in the city’s sprawl. But this freedom isn’t completely beneficial — the increasing specialization of the individual results in a growing intellectual distance between him and his peers. Suddenly, because everyone is so much more free, there’s a lot less people have in common.

Though Simmel was talking about life in the city, it’s hard not to see the parallels here on campus. After all, our school’s slogan is “the wind of freedom blows,” and everyone’s almost relentlessly encouraged to try out new things. English majors shuffle into the overflow rooms of CS106A and physics geeks attend art history classes to hear Alexander Nemerov’s legendary lectures. There are so many student groups that their tables fill up the entirety of White Plaza. And the flexibility to pursue nearly any intellectual interest is matched by an astonishing diversity on campus — hundreds of countries, states, cultures, and backgrounds are represented in any moderately sized room at a given time. The newfound freedom Stanford provides, along with the sheer variety of experience that those around us have, is undeniably electrifying.

But it’s hard not to feel the weight of that freedom, too. Maybe the guy you strike up a conversation with by Tresidder lives on the other end of campus and isn’t taking any of your classes. Maybe you’re an international student and there’s only one or two other people who know what it’s like to be where you’re from. Maybe you run into an acquaintance on a train ride to San Francisco, talk for hours, fall in love a little bit, and never see them again. Because of the dizzying freedom that comes with a liberal arts education, combined with the sprawl of opportunities that Stanford provides, it’s difficult to make connections outside of circumstance. Relationships, after all, are built on common ground — and, when everyone’s so different, common ground is hard to come by.

That realization drove Simmel to write that “in the dense crowds of the metropolis … the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time.” And isn’t that Stanford’s hidden irony — that in the middle of NSO, surrounded by hundreds of new frosh, we somehow still feel lonely?

I’m writing this not because I have any solutions, but because loneliness often feels so wrong in a place as vibrant as this university. Getting to Stanford is, for many of us, a dream of many years come true. It’s hard to admit to ourselves, much less to others, that paradise — for all its freedoms — doesn’t provide us all the answers.

In the end, though, we start to find our small communities — spending late nights out at camp with an a capella group, practicing with a marching band, performing spoken word alongside a warm circle of newfound friends. But things don’t always click neatly into place, and even when we make connections, we might still feel lost. Or maybe we haven’t made those connections yet, if at all.

Still, there’s hope to be found in the loneliness that comes with freedom. If we set aside the majors and the clubs and the interests and the cultures and still find ourselves feeling distanced from others, then at least this loneliness we so often face is something that we can share. And that’s as good a start for connecting with someone as any.
Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected].

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