I read a Bloomberg Business article the other day that examined new research implying college freshmen are lonelier and more innocent than ever. It was an interesting read -- I recommend it.
However, it did get me thinking. My best memories of college include my roommates, my baseball team, and flirting with girls. We drank, we partied, we had sex -- isn't that what the four years of college are for? But I also spent a lot of my days in a coffee shop reading. I mainly read fiction novels, but thankfully I and a professor who assigned gems from authors such as John Irving, Margaret Atwood, and Christopher Moore. When my social life wasn't booming, I had an entirely different world in which I could immerse myself.
When I was at my loneliest during my college years, I spent a LOT of time on the computer. The Facebook had just been launched (if you understand the use of "the" in that, you're an OG), YouTube was a new sensation, and students at my school had just discovered how to utilize the university network to share music, movies, and porn. Needless to say, there wasn't a huge reason to leave your dorm if you wanted entertainment.
But as time passed, I fell deeper into what, in hindsight, was a sustained episode of depression. Much like the undergraduates of today, I had been seeking the instant gratification of electronics. Instead of turning to a book when I needed to fill hours, I'd refresh my "Facebook wall," sign on to AIM, or see if I had any texts. And in those moments when my phone wasn't buzzing or my computer wasn't lighting up, I felt empty.
Only after the storm passed did I have the chance to reflect on the habits that led to it. Among the habits I had dropped during that time period was reading for pleasure. Talking to the freshmen I currently teach, I find that reading for pleasure is something very few students have even learned to do. I'm not here to speculate on the reasons why this is, but what a pity that many of my students have never been asked to read Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other authors. Admittedly, many of these texts depict morbid, dark, and even depressing situations that may not seem suitable for lonely students; but on the other hand, spending time with these characters gave me a distinct feeling of belonging. It helped me realize that many of the existential dilemmas I had created were "normal," and that a lot of characters (and, by extrapolation, people) had endured similar tribulations.
So that's what I will tell my students to do when they feel down. Read.
Billy Pilgrim felt lonely; the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court experienced disillusionment; Sherlock Holmes lived for his moments of solitude (likely thanks to his violin or his cocaine). But there's a lot to glean from watching these characters cope with the problems we often see as permanent (nothing is) and listening to the great voices of literature share the wisdom that we are all improvising basically every moment in life (we are).
So undergrads, go to a party (with friends), have a few drinks (no binging), have sex with each other (condomscondomscondoms). But in those moments when those options are unavailable, turn off the computer, sit in stillness, remember to breathe, and see what John Steinbeck has to say about life.
You might accidentally find joy.
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