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My freshman self dreaded eating alone. Eating alone in Annenberg meant one of two things. I would either have to risk small talk with strangers, or come across as lonely and friendless. Dreading both, I tried my best to coordinate each of my meals with my roommates and fellow Cadets. When worst came to worst, I would message an acquaintance or two to join me, hoping to fill the gaps left by my friends’ busy schedules.
Surprisingly, my freshman self was largely successful in staving off lunchtime loneliness. My journal-sized agenda was full of lunches and dinners with “so-and-so,” each neatly checked off with blue or black ink. As I flipped through my agenda at the end of my freshman year, I was impressed with my capacity for last-minute scheduling. Almost every day was marked with a different meeting, and boy, it felt good to be busy. Back then, nothing was more fulfilling than reaffirming my worth with meaningless meals and meetings.
But something was missing. Though I met lots of interesting people, I had yet to truly get to know myself. It may sound strange, but one’s true self is an odd entity that, like any stranger, takes time to fully understand and befriend. In my case, getting to know my inner self was the result of two lessons: Learning to surmount unusual suffering, and learning to cope with loneliness.
Uncle Sam provided the first lesson. Though I’m no fan of tear gas, ticks, or hunger, I can now confidently say that the Army taught me how to control my primitive impulses and remain composed in the face of unusual physical and psychological stress. When you’re subjected to Fort Knox’s humidity and wildlife, as well as the ire and stupidity of your fellow Cadets, you’ll quickly learn how to subdue your cynical, uncivilized self.
However, your uncivilized self is only small part of your true inner self. The other major component—let’s call it your civilized self—is far less brutish and comprises a larger portion of your personality. To get in touch with it, you must spend time alone—not in an Army training camp, but in your room, in the dining hall, and just about anywhere else.
Now, I know what you’re thinking—that loneliness means nothing but sadness. But loneliness isn’t inherently harmful; like anything else, its impact comes down to how you approach it. And more likely than not, you’re letting your loneliness go to waste.
Most of us don’t fear loneliness itself, but rather the thoughts that come with it. When you’re alone, you’ve got no one to keep you company but your conscience, and for many of us, that’s absolutely terrifying. Luckily, the modern world gives us tools to distract us. Scrolling through Facebook, rewatching The Office, and drinking—these are fun distractions by which we regularly postpone conversing with our inner selves. Yet when that episode comes to an end and your hangover begins to recede, your inner thoughts are still there, waiting for you to acknowledge them.
Until recently, I had done a pretty good job of avoiding my inner self. ROTC-related work and my senior thesis provided me with plenty of stress to keep my conscience preoccupied. It wasn’t until I submitted my thesis that I was finally forced to acknowledge my inner self. You see, I had originally imagined my post-thesis life to evolve into a journey of drunk fun, not sober solitude. But though my schedule had suddenly opened up, everyone around me remained inundated with work.
With my thesis done and ROTC winding down, I had nothing to distract myself with as I ate alone and watched my friends work away. I tried listening to podcasts and music to keep the silence at bay, but quickly discovered that, when used to drown silence, even the most enjoyable songs become nothing but noise. Though podcasts and lyrics can provide us with glimpses of other lives, the stories they paint are largely forgetful when they’re used as nothing more than distractions for restless minds.
About a month or so ago, I decided to give instrumental music a try, hoping the lack of words would make a difference. I sat down, enjoyed a solitary dining hall breakfast, and let my mind forge thoughts to accompany my lyricless soundtrack. To my surprise, the experience was far from dreadful. For the first time in recent memory, I wasn’t thinking about the next day’s work or the following week’s to-do list; instead, I spent my breakfast calmly reflecting, reminiscing, and eating to the beat of some wordless electronic orchestra. As I walked to Russian class later that morning, I felt more at peace than I had ever felt during my last four years at Harvard.
Don’t get me wrong, I still like spending time with my friends and loved ones. But there’s something magical about setting some time aside to let your inner self wander. I now look forward to moments alone just as I do to meals with old friends. Because the truth is, once you’re content with your inner self, no lonely moment is ever truly spent alone.
A few mornings ago, I sat alone in my room, staring out over the Charles River as “rainy forest” by ihaveaface played in the background. I thought about my upcoming graduation. I thought about my family. I thought about meaningless things, like how to defeat the creatures from “A Quiet Place.” And you know what? There’s no other way I would have rather spent that morning, other than quietly thinking to myself.
Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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