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John Harvard's Journal

From Lonely to Alone

7.1.97

Until the night before I left for winter break my first year, Harvard was enchanted. The people were winged, the ideas were utopian, the Yard was sylvan bliss. But that night, Harvard gave up another side of itself: its loneliness.

I could not sleep. The day had been jammed with finishing a paper, running errands, and meticulous packing. When the appointed hour arrived, my mind was so overwrought that I could not bring head to bed. In fact, a number of us were sleepless, enjoying the few hours of time spent together, freed from academic responsibilities. But slowly, each dropped off until only one friend remained. I was still insomniac and afraid that if I did go to sleep, I would miss my 7 a.m. flight. My friend, a veteran puller of all-nighters, pledged to stay up with me.

At two in the morning, then, we left Hurlbut and set out for the wall behind Lamont Library, which some of our set had figured out how to climb. Although wall-sitting was one of our favorite pastimes, straddling the wall of the Ivory Tower in the wee hours made me lonely. People drifted soberly in and tipsily out of the Hong Kong across the street, and a few straggled through the Yard. Looking around, I marveled at the number of lights burning in the Yard dorms. And just as I was getting bored, my friend said we had some calls to make.

To my friend, these were his rounds, and he knew which of those burning lights belonged to nocturnal people who could be counted on to be awake. So we trooped from Grays to Matthews to Hollis, like children with too many aunts to visit on a Sunday afternoon. Calling at each rooming group, we chatted for awhile. What are you doing for winter break? When are you leaving for home? You're from Walla Walla! I didn't know...

I did know that seeing all these people awake when they should, by all rights, have been asleep stirred curiously powerful feelings in me. Part of me was delighted and bemused that there should be such a network of nocturnal creatures. (Carolyn Fast '98 tells me that technology has strengthened their tenuous connection: when she is up late studying or writing, she logs onto e-mail "to see who's awake.") But part of me was deeply disturbed at the tinge of sadness that rimmed the smiles that greeted us. They seemed to say, it is late, I am sleepless, I am overworked, I am idle, I am lonely...

Don't get me wrong--I know nocturnal activity is part of the collegiate experience everywhere. But all-nighters had been so molded into my conception of nirvana (and Harvardiana) that I never recognized the sadness, the disjuncture they imply.

The College is aware of this anomie, and a plethora of peer-counseling groups and hotlines have sprung up to deal with it. Room 13, the oldest of these organizations, deals with general concerns rather than focusing on a particular issue such as eating disorders or sexuality. Under the supervision of University Health Services (UHS) and the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC), the group provides both a male and a female student counselor to discuss concerns between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. every night in Grays Hall.

Dr. Deborah Pilgrim, Ed.M. '79, the BSC counselor who works with Room 13, likes to think of it as "the part of Harvard that's there for students when the rest of us are asleep." And those hours, she stresses, are the hardest for students who are already facing the typical undergraduate emotional challenges, such as roommate tensions, finals, or homesickness. "During the day," she explains, "you're busy and your mind is active. But at night, when you finally focus on yourself, you're alone with your thoughts and it's difficult to sleep."

So I received an inkling of loneliness the night before I went home. When I came back, I had a more jarring reminder. There is a ritual of unknown origin wherein, on the eve of the first exam, at the stroke of midnight, the student body heads into the Yard or House courtyards and--in one awesome and terrible release of tension--screams. Appropriately, the rite is called Primal Scream. The screaming itself is accompanied by a tooting of horns, a blowing of whistles, and a blasting of music. Members of the band and of various sports teams are known to streak. During winter Primal Scream, there have been infamous snowball fights in the buff. The festivities are simply orgiastic.

The carnival atmosphere and the countdown to midnight recall New Year's Eve for Sara Houghteling '99. "It's a good tradition," she says, "but the fact that we need it shows that something is warped. It's our vain attempt to mock stress and the importance placed on exams."

The Scream didn't exist as an institution when Roger Rosenblatt was senior tutor and then master of Dunster House (between 1967 and 1973), but he says, "It doesn't sound like a bad idea. Remember, the precursor to the Primal Scream as a tactic was the genuine scream."

When I marched intrepidly into the melee in the Yard, I, too, was tense about impending exams. But after that night of roaming barely one month before, I was also attuned to an undercurrent of loneliness in our festivities. To me, the Scream was about all of the freshmen--tired, isolated at our desks and carrels, newly thrust back here after two weeks at home--streaming out onto the lawn and yelling away our beastly loneliness at the tops of our lungs. Afterwards, we walked back to our dorms in a kind of stupor. Falling asleep was no problem; the beast had been vanquished.

These are the extremes, but in my three years here, I have witnessed a thousand subtler forms of loneliness.

Many stem from the intellectual endeavor itself. The pervasive atmosphere of competition at the College can be very isolating. Friends can't always talk about everything. If they comp the same publication or take a competitive class together, the tension may lead to a moratorium on conversation at best and a rupture in the friendship at worst. And if a test or a paper yields a bad grade, loneliness is compounded by shame, and it is difficult to confide the secret hurt.

One of the most isolating experiences can be writing a senior thesis. Orit Sarfaty '97, whose topic was affirmative-action policies and Asian Americans, wrote most of her 130 pages during the middle of the night. "Nobody could bother me then," she says. "I had two or three good, silent hours. And on Sunday nights WHRB had this bluesy, jazzy show that inspired me to stay up." Despite such musical sustenance, a sense of urgency propels work done at such hours that precludes study breaks.

Even in daylight, the thesis experience breeds separation. "You don't ask, 'How is your thesis going?'" Sarfaty says. As if this barrier among thesis writers weren't enough, Sarfaty also perceived a sharp dichotomy between those who did and did not write theses. One camp pointed to its newly culled knowledge, the other to its blessed leisure time, and both insisted, "We were the smart ones."

And parents just don't understand, either. Many ask why it's taking so long to write one paper, or remind their frazzled progeny that when they were in college working on their theses...Ultimately, though, these isolating factors can yield a peculiar bonding experience as friends who write theses are able to compare war stories.

Similarly, exhaustive academic work can engender a close intellectual relationship with an adviser. Such was my experience in writing my junior paper about a cluster of medieval Bible translations. But Sarfaty found no such kindred intellectual spirit. Part of the reason, she says, was her "big-name" professor's busy schedule, but much was due to her own feelings about her work. "I was overprotective," she explains. "My thesis was my baby, and I didn't want anybody holding my baby. I wanted control over every word."

Nevertheless, some seniors, having never given birth to a thesis before, opt for the prenatal care the College is eager to provide. A few of the Houses and concentrations run thesis seminars that are usually well attended, says BSC counselor Sheila Reindl '80, Ed.D. '95. She also organizes a workshop for thesis writers that covers academic concerns, like honing a topic, and emotional issues like procrastination. Recognizing the loneliness that many thesis writers feel, she distributes brainstorming handouts which "are an attempt to keep company for people."

Reindl believes that even day-to-day studying can be draining. "Studying can be sensorily depriving," she says. "You are sitting there without anything to stimulate your senses. Some of that is inevitable." Therefore, she advises students to be their own company by giving themselves such stimuli as herbal teas, dance breaks, or walks.

Reindl is really talking about learning to inhabit comfortably that unavoidable measure of loneliness. In minimizing the deprived, lonely part of the feeling, we can learn to treasure the nurturing, alone aspect of it. We can, Reindl says, "care with abandon and reclaim the nerd within."

I have been that happy nerd many times as I headed into the Widener stacks or subterranean Pusey. As the elevator descends, it feels as if I am tracking some bit of information to the very bowels of the earth. Moments of discovery have aloneness at their core, and they are "the happiest loneliness," according to Roger Rosenblatt. "You're on some creative path, and you are your own best company. It's not a solipsistic path because it's going toward something--perhaps even an answer." Indeed, there are times when I realize that I must produce my best work precisely because I am alone and there is no one else to do it for me. And those times aren't just exciting; they're a scream.

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