Building the Opposite of Loneliness

Hey, Andover:

Were these normal times, I would be sending my greetings from Exeter. Of course, I am not doing so—instead, I’m cooped up at home closer to your school than most Phillipians are. Instead of singing through the quad or debating with friends, I find myself glued to a screen in my increasingly messy room, alone with my thoughts. I feel on edge, nervous, and unproductive. In the end, I just want to be back at Exeter with all my friends, because there’s something tremendously special in that place, with those people. It is the magic of a 2:00 a.m. discussion about the failures of Kant’s metaphysics. It is the bubbling, vivacious energy of friends in the dining hall, bantering on about their days.

There’s this quote making the rounds in Exeter circles (first shown to me by a Senior friend) that I want to share with you, from “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Yale alumna Marina Keegan. I think it so perfectly encapsulates everything I’m feeling right now, and I wanted y’all to see it:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at [Exeter], and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. 

Who are on your team… [Exeter] is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights when we stumble home to our computers — partner-less, tired, awake. We won’t have those next year. We won’t live on the same block as all our friends. We won’t have a bunch of group-texts. 

This scares me. More than finding the right job or city or spouse – I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now… We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at [Exeter]. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that. 

See, at school, I feel like part of something. I’m part of The Exonian, I’m part of a cappella, I’m part of a dorm, I’m part of all sorts of circles. Even without it for just a few weeks, I feel deprived. And I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must hit the Seniors, who had been waiting for their whole high school careers just for this moment to be snatched away from them. And Spring was supposed to be the term we all connected. There were so many moments that I just put off, connections that I said I’d make in the spring, Seniors that I said I’d talk to when I got back from break. It hurts and stings to be away from them, because truth be told, I too am afraid of leaving Exeter. Is this what my life will be like? Alone, away from the groups that connect me back to myself? Worst of all, alone with my thoughts all day, every day?

I’m sure many of you are feeling those same thoughts right now. And I have no idea how long they’ll last. But in many ways, the onus is now on us to keep and build those same circles we once had on campus. It takes an active effort—it means reaching out to people, building servers, going out of your way to click buttons, start calls, and unmute yourself. We didn’t have to do that before. We could’ve just blurted out “hello” to someone on the quad. We could have just had a spontaneous conversation after overhearing some debate. But we live in a different world entirely. This might just be a foretaste of the lonely, tired world outside our bubbles.

But Keegan is right—we don’t have to lose that. We can build real, durable, lasting communities to weather this storm and we can still reach out to people. We don’t have to lose our circles, the abundance of people around us. See, some say that we should take this time to focus on ourselves, that we should use it as some form of ultimate “me time.” The tricky thing is that I don’t want “me time.” I want to be surrounded by my friends and feel the strange, unsettling joy of campus. And it feels almost defeatist to give up on that, because I see people coming together. I’m sure it’s been happening at Andover too, but we’ve seen schoolwide Discord servers, student art accounts, even cooking channels spring up out of nowhere. They make it possible for me to envision a world beyond Exeter and to believe that I don’t have to lose that “opposite of loneliness.”

I hope you all don’t give up on it, either. Heck, maybe this is a time to expand our vision of what a school community means. After all, the more circles we have the better. Maybe this is a time for a big, wider circle so we can all get through this together. Maybe this is a time for Exeter and Andover students to come together and build community while social distancing. So I guess maybe I cringe a little saying this, but just maybe, if only for a term, aren’t we all Phillipians?