Betty Townley

In my very first month at Cambridge, my shiny new friend gifted me a copy of The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, a beautiful essay written by a Yale student on the eve of her graduation - a rich snapshot of the years she spent at Yale: ‘It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community…When the check is paid and you stay at the table…when it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed.’ Head over heels in love with my own new Mallory Towers existence, the essay resonated perfectly with me. It became something of a sacred text. Now in my second year, while I no less recognise the giddy euphoria of running around drunk in fancy dress costumes and the safe contentedness of sitting up until the early hours in a friend’s warm room talking, I also see a coexistent flipside of the experience. Be it the sickening sense of being the ‘only one’ not good enough, the heart-rending Camfess posts or the drunk girl in Market Square running round yelling into the night sky in the empty hope it unfurls down to wrap her up and love her – loneliness is woven into the fabric of our lives here.

Just metres from each other in our little box-like rooms, most of us are less ‘alone’ than we’ve ever been, and yet, isolated. The discussion of loneliness in young people however I believe is far too binary – either over-medicalised or over-Romanticised, and too often confused with being alone. What fascinates me about the experience of loneliness at university is that it is both collective and taboo – a shared emotional experience that should surely unite rather than isolate. In preparation for writing this article I spoke to students about their experiences, and their stories illuminated a cohesive narrative, one where each person felt hesitant to admit to feeling lonely – perhaps because, as one student remarked, it can be ‘associated with inferiority or a lack of likeability’. Their stories progressed similarly as they learnt to adjust to living alone. one student commented that in their first year ‘every evening I wasn’t spending doing something felt like a personal failure’, and the majority agreed that while the initial loneliness of having left home dissipated with time, it did not entirely disappear. One student explained ‘I still can feel lonely, but I just no longer correlate this directly to being on my own.’

I am of course not trying to monopolise collective loneliness as a ‘Cambridge problem’, but I wonder if there are some factors of the highly pressurised experience that contribute to this complicated emotional reality. Perhaps it is influenced by the amount of time our workload requires us to spend alone, or the individualistic currency of success – be it grades, theatre, sport, so many people around me seem to be violently addicted to personal achievement and competition in the end only isolates. Does the entry requirement of top exam grades create an unhealthy concentration of people with a propensity to locking themselves up alone, inside their subjects and minds? Balancing a healthy emotional state and consistent dedication to academics is, as has been endlessly documented, far from easy, and in the eight-week sprints I find it hard to stop my emotional and academic life from swilling together, having re-read literature essays and found them to say a lot more about the tangled contents of my own mind than their supposed subject.

Every time I return home for the holidays I find myself gushing about the poetry and community of my life in Cambridge, and strangely I find moments of loneliness a comforting and integral part of this mythology. In Adieu to Norman, Bon Jour to Joan and Jean-Paul, Frank O’Hara writes ‘It is good to be several floors up in the dead of night/wondering if you are any good or not’, a line that captures, if not explains, a unique mood I associate with the Cambridge term. There is a calm to sitting at the only lit-up desk in the library at 2am, a happy melancholy to a cold early morning walk on your own. But while there might be a camp tragedy to sitting in a 19th century stone staircase crying the glitter off your face, in the moment it’s horrible. Romanticisation has its limits, and many people I spoke to linked their worst experiences of loneliness with the ‘party lifestyle’, thought to be the ‘social pinnacle of one’s life’. One student encapsulated this with thoughtful clarity: ‘I think there is an expectation of young people to never feel lonely and be out all the time, especially in University culture. It doesn’t really leave space for feeling lonely when surrounded by people. I can find clubs extremely lonely and yet they are seen as the height of feeling like you belong somewhere.’ ‘Feeling like you belong’ seems to pervade as one of the most coveted feelings in the popular imagination, and one of the most difficult to ever fully satisfy.

Prominent psycho-analytical theorist Melanie Klein describes loneliness as ‘a ubiquitous yearning for an unattainable perfect internal state’ tracing the feeling of complete belonging and understanding to the non-verbal connection between mother and baby in early infancy. She concludes that loneliness can never be entirely eliminated because it demonstrates a notional connection with the world, a wish to connect with others - the ability to feel lonely means we’re part of the cosmic social structure of the human population. I don’t think we need to ‘cure’ loneliness, even if we could, but to accept it as an inevitable facet of the human condition. I can’t offer a way to banish or deal with feeling lonely, but I hope that we get better at talking about it. Read Marina Keegan’s speech. Tell your friends you love them. Keep crying in turrets and club toilets - because while this experience is weird, it’s one that we will one day walk away from and never get back.