Malbreaux: The Antonymic Life

We should refuse loneliness by finding its opposite.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 10/19/17 1:15am

“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.” This was the opening line for Marina Keegan’s final column in the Yale Daily News, published days after her graduation. Keegan was a magna cum laude graduate with a promising future as a journalist at The New Yorker. Already an accomplished writer, Keegan had received an award for her play “Utility Monster” for best stage reading at a playwriting festival in Manhattan.

Family and friends alike were amazed by her precocious writing abilities. Max de La Bruyere, the 2012 editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News, noted Keegan’s ability to challenge “people to think” through her writing and activism. Professors loved her. Harold Bloom, the renowned literary critic who taught Keegan at Yale, called her “wise, almost beyond measure.”

On May 26, 2012, she was tragically killed in a car accident. She was 22 years old.

The day after, the Yale Daily News published her final essay online, entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness.” In it, she described her uneasiness about leaving the Yale community and going into the real world, where she feared losing that feeling of being surrounded by “an abundance of people, who are in this together.”

There exists no word in the English language to describe “the opposite of loneliness.” But Keegan’s magnum opus goes beyond merely stating her fear of losing that feeling. On first reading, it may seem that she stated the obvious — but it is great-sounding, feel-good mush that can, at times, seem impossible to realize in the real world. “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything,” she said, “We can start over ... We’re so young.”

However, a deeper look at Keegan’s take on the last word in that title, “loneliness,” reveals two interpretations. Obviously, there is loneliness as a product of physical isolation, when one is detached from a community or without close friends. Keegan felt the opposite of this at Yale and feared most that after graduation, she would experience that.

Then there is the loneliness felt in the hypercompetitive environment of Yale — and, for that matter, the rest of the Ivy League. Everyone seems to have their lives focused, scheduled and detailed. A handful of students wreck grading curves. Professorial favorites gain brownie-points in office hours. If it were a club, “excessive resume padding” would have the highest membership bar none. A student at these schools may not be lonely, in the sense that they lack friendship. But they may be very, very lonely in the search for adequacy through the perfect internship, the lucrative job offering, the prestigious fellowship.

This reading of Keegan is significant. As someone who checked off all the boxes of the typical Ivy League resume — President of the College Democrats, intern for former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — she championed those “lost in this sea of liberal arts” as heroes. They may not have had “it” all figured out, but they at least refused to give into easy, passionless career paths offered at schools like Yale. Plus, perhaps Keegan didn’t have it figured out either. Toward the end she wrote, “Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it … To you I say both congratulations and you suck.”

The ultimate goal of her essay is not to forewarn fellow graduates of life of impending loneliness, without “a capella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs.” Rather, Keegan reminds us of how young we are. How much possibility remains unexplored. How many good moments we haven’t had with people we haven’t yet met.

Keegan, the poet, novelist, philosopher and social critic, would have turned 28 years old later this month, on Oct. 25. Let us remember the legacy of optimism she left behind. To seniors in their home stretch or first-years just starting their journey, remember — “the notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical.” Join that affinity group that caught your attention in your inbox. Ask that charismatic professor to lunch. Apply to graduate school.

Dartmouth will sometimes make you feel “in love, impressed, humbled, scared.” It may often make you feel lonely, in both senses of the word. But through it all, we must remember not to let college be a series of “I wish I had done X” excuses. Take chances; risk it all. We must pursue our dreams. We must find meaning and adequacy. We must find the “opposite of loneliness.”