TTLG: On the Opposite of Loneliness

by Lara Balick | 5/1/19 2:20am

Courtesy of Lara Balick

“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 is how Marina Keegan, a senior at Yale, began her article for the Yale Daily News in 2012. In the article, she reflected on leaving the web she had built, where she felt safe and part of something greater than herself.

“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.” 

As my own graduation looms a few weeks away, like Marina, I feel deep gratitude for this special “elusive, indefinable” opposite of loneliness I’ve found at Dartmouth. I’m also growing increasingly anxious about losing it. How will I maintain my relationships with the people I care about, many of whom are moving to different cities? Will I be able to find this feeling again after I graduate?

I first felt the opposite of loneliness sophomore fall, sitting in my biology professor’s office hours after bombing the first midterm. Biology was easy for me in high school, but suddenly I was rewatching every lecture recording and still struggling to understand the material. I envisioned the long, formidable road of pre-med classes that lay ahead. Was I smart enough? Could I do it?

To my surprise, my professor told me that when she was a student at Dartmouth and took one of her first biology classes, she also needed a tutor. I felt a rush of relief as she reassured me that there is no shame in struggling. This material is hard. No one understands it perfectly the first time they learn it. Eventually, it will click. The struggle is the process; it means you’re challenging yourself and growing. For the first time, I felt like a professor was on my team and invested in my success.

Another time I felt the opposite of loneliness at Dartmouth was when I spent a month in the woods on Vox Croo last summer. Enthusiastically and unapologetically, I drank the “Dartmouth Kool-Aid.” I dyed my hair neon pink and hiked Franc Ridge in flair. My croolings and I indoctrinated trippees — we closed our eyes, held hands and “took the still north into our hearts.” 

One afternoon, a few croolings and I, wearing face paint and yelling about the Hunger Games, sprinted towards an unsuspecting group of incoming freshmen to raid their trip. After eating our brownies and enduring our shtik, the group interrupted and told us they were from Harvard. They stared at us like, “what kind of crazy cult school is Dartmouth?” Some of our traditions might seem bizarre, but for me, they’ve made Dartmouth feel like home. 

Meeting so many ’22s, answering their endless questions and mitigating their anxieties, reminded me of my own freshman trip. I remembered how amazed I felt at the amount of time, effort and care Dartmouth upperclassmen poured into welcoming incoming freshmen. As if to say, “We are so excited to have you here. This is your place as much as it is ours.” It was so meaningful to me when a Trip leader trainer I met only briefly remembered my name, smiled and said hi to me every time he saw me until he graduated. I am so grateful for the upperclassmen I’ve met not just through Trips but also through my sorority, who have been my role models, mentors and support system at Dartmouth. I’ve loved paying it forward and forming these same relationships with underclassmen.

All of that being said, Dartmouth is far from perfect. Many people do not find the opposite of loneliness here. In the spaces where I’ve made my closest friends, too many people feel uncomfortable and excluded. Many people I love have taken leave terms or transferred because Dartmouth did not provide the support they needed. In 2017, 34 percent of female undergraduates reported experiencing sexual assault during their time here — a fact of life at Dartmouth that will very likely continue for the ’23s, ’24s and ’25s. Mental health issues are rampant: In the 2018 Dartmouth Health Survey, about one-fifth of respondents reported they had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of respondents agreed or strongly agreed the campus climate has a negative impact on students’ mental and emotional well-being. Wait times at Dick’s House are unacceptably long: We need more counselors. Not by 2022 — right now. 

Dartmouth’s problems feel so intractable and deeply ingrained. Change feels impossible. And yet, so many students try. I admire the people who devote their free time toward supporting their peers and working to reform school policies. Last weekend, I felt enveloped in solidarity marching alongside other students in the pouring rain for Take Back the Night. I feel the opposite of loneliness when I think about all of the people who are so invested in Dartmouth and care deeply about improving it. 

Ironically, at a school whose motto is “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” I have never felt less isolated. It comforts me to have all of my friends so easily accessible. I can walk through Baker Lobby on a weekday morning and know that Sammi will be sitting at her usual table. I know that I’ll get to catch up with Holly four days a week when we walk to and from our class in the Life Sciences Center. Most nights before going to sleep, I wander into the rooms of my friends Elizabeth and Katie and plop down on their beds while we catch up about our days. 

The English language doesn’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if it did, what would it be? The question makes me think back to my freshman class orientation book, “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.” Eager to complete my first college assignment, I read it cover-to-cover. The book’s central thesis is that all of the people we surround ourselves with have a profound impact on who we are and how we behave. Now, as I near graduation, I understand why the admissions office chose this book: because it’s true. I feel grateful for all of the kind, thoughtful, wonderful people at Dartmouth who have made me a better person. I’m comforted by Marina’s message: We don’t have to lose the opposite of loneliness when we graduate. I plan to stay connected to the parts of Dartmouth that are meaningful to me, and I look forward to many more beautiful times ahead.