This year I made the decision to live in a one-bedroom apartment — a choice that was significant not only because it meant I would be living off campus for the first time, but also because it meant I would be living alone. Don’t feel bad for me — I made this choice willingly and happily. I have plenty of close friends, enough funds to afford Rice housing and no mental or emotional problems. I just wanted there to be a single place in my life that was quiet, private and a meaningful distance away from the neuroticism of the “Rice bubble.”
The summer before my senior year, everything went as I expected. Busy days teaching middle schoolers and hanging out with coworkers were punctuated with peaceful, quiet nights curled up on the couch by the television. Yet, when the school year started, things shifted radically. I would run myself ragged during the day between classes and club planning, and then, at night, I would feel a gnawing pressure to socialize. On the second or third night of class, I forced myself to go home before midnight to rest, but as soon as I came in the door, the silence was deafening and I felt myself start to panic. I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t watch television. I desperately needed to be with others, to the point where I texted my sleeping boyfriend nine times to try to get him to talk to me — something that embarasses me even now as I write it down.
What changed between the summer and the school year? The answer is both simple and complex. There are hidden “rules” for how we entertain ourselves in college, shaped through culture, discourse and the constraints and opportunities presented by campus life. The more restraining rules can be broken; “you must drink to be cool” is one that is often felt but vehemently denied and which many break with no social consequence. Another, “the only people you may do social activities with are other Rice students” exerts a harder pressure, but understandably so due to the proximity of Rice students to each other. The rule that has the most influence on our free time and our choices for entertainment, however, is the following: “You must interact with your peers whenever you possibly can.”
Let’s break this down. What this cultural rule essentially means is that as a Rice student, if you are faced with free time to do something non-academic or engage in an activity that is purely for entertainment, you are more likely than not to feel like you should be doing this activity with other students. You text your friends, “What’s going on tonight?” You go to the private or public party. You go see a movie with friends even if you aren’t interested in the plotline. There’s a similar pressure on people who are not at comparable universities, but I would argue that it’s far milder. In the “real world,” this pressure comes when you are feeling lonely or have not seen your friends in a while. At Rice, you feel it whenever you are not already committed to do something else — and sometimes, even if you are.
Some pressure to engage in social forms of entertainment is healthy — strong relationships make life more enjoyable, and being with others can help us get outside of our own heads. Furthermore, some forms of entertainment (social drinking, going out to dinner, etc.) are just way more fun to do with other people. This is obvious. The problem is when the pressure is so intense that you become like me, heading back to your apartment exhausted and overstimulated, yet unable to enjoy anything without other people by your side.
When you get to this point, which many people I know have, you have lost your freedom to create your life experience. You are now barred from choosing the entertainment you consume and enjoy; you are restricted to that which your peers choose and influenced by their opinions about it (whether you realize it or not). At some point, a component of your identity is morphed and lost — the part that is developed through active and private selection of what you are exposed to and how you feel about it. It’s the part of your identity that enjoys French films and has novel opinions about them; that has favorite quotes in books no one you know has read; that likes Garth Brooks even though none of your college friends can stand country. Losing this piece — the piece of you that consumes entertainment alone and forms opinions about entertainment and art in isolation, is beautiful and unique and a tragedy to lose.
So, what can be done? Recognize that enjoying things alone is not less valuable than enjoying them with friends. Each has its place, and neither should be dismissed de facto. Furthermore, let anxiety in the face of isolation be a warning signal that rather than finding people, you need to be alone more; you need to remind yourself how to be entertained by your own choices and intellect. When the noise of college life is deafening, close the door, turn on your bedside lamp and read or watch or listen, for you.