Cambridge picturedSean O'Hare

Thinking is a lonely thing.

Or, it’s lonely, at least, in part — and that’s good. It’s hard to impart to others what one has not yet obtained, and it’s nearly impossible to obtain anything worth having without significant doses of solitary contemplation. Worthwhile thoughts require space to formulate, time to germinate. To put it bluntly: you can’t be that sexy intellectual at the party without having read at least one damn book on your own time.

Vanity and joking aside, this imparting — the sharing among one’s peers — be it through conversations in supervisions, seminars or pubs, is one of the best things about this city. A place like Cambridge is wonderfully suited to this kind of cross-pollination. It’s why I came here to study, and I imagine why many of you chose this place as well. There is a surplus of brilliant people here, many of them eager to engage with you — either about your chosen subject, or something fascinating and entirely different altogether. This year, we can finally partake in this again, and it’s a beautiful thing.

For me, the opening of Michaelmas term has reflected this excitement, and rightfully so. Being a hopeless extrovert heading into second year, I’ve been looking forward to the increased social opportunities all summer, and have already taken advantage of so many of them. However, I’ve also begun to notice a tendency in myself and those around me to over-extend and over-commit to what’s on offer around the city, even in these first few weeks. Sure, Freshers’ week has always been hectic, and I’d imagine that finding a balance between work and play in such a vibrant environment as Cambridge has always been a challenge… but this year feels different. There’s a temptation this time around, I suspect, to grasp not only at the things that are available this term, but also for whatever it is we feel that we’ve lost the previous year. I understand this impulse; however, I’m also convinced that, for many, it will lead to a less fulfilling, less constructive re-entrance into our shared sociality and academic pursuits.

“We run the risk of becoming zombies: wandering from thing, to thing, to thing”

It’s dawned on me in recent weeks that. while there are finally so many opportunities for exciting interactions this term, we may, in our over-excitement, just as easily end up creating a bunch of noise instead of durable connections. Not because the events and the people running them aren’t exceptionally and endlessly interesting, but because we run the risk of becoming zombies: wandering from thing, to thing, to thing, unable to participate in meaningful ways as attendees, or alternatively, incapable of hosting events worth attending. Conversation that could be dynamic and insightful, or playful and hilarious, might instead become stretched thin as we all nervously sip our drinks: exhausted from the never-ending social carousel. Tapping into those truly impactful, friendship-building experiences means we all need to have spent a substantial amount of time on our own so that we can be confident in what we’re contributing, and be able to muster genuine interest in what’s happening around us.

One of the greatest challenges facing us after such an extended period of isolation, is the disentanglement of fruitful, intellectually generative solitude from the soul-sucking loneliness we’ve all experienced in recent months. This difficulty of rightly distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ solitude is further compounded, I think, by the fact that ‘good’ solitude often manifests itself as a painful experience — and we’ve had enough of those recently, thank you very much. Worthwhile thinking is usually a strenuous undertaking, like strength training, or pushing through cardio on a sluggish day. So too is identifying, working through, and cultivating a healthy emotional life. And the memory of months and months of working alone in our rooms, of not seeing or meeting our own course mates, makes the prospect of building a healthy practice of solitude quite daunting. Still, confidence in solitude is perhaps one of the most important things to be pursuing as this year explodes upon us, and can only be forged by choosing it when it counts.

“I’m fully aware of the potential unpopularity of arguing for doing less things right now”

Before I’m misread here, let me make an important clarification. Lest it be claimed that I’m proposing students become antisocial or lock themselves in a room and work themselves to death… I’m not. In fact, I would argue that regular and restful time alone — whatever this looks like to you — is the only real solution to the crushing workload that inevitably accrues over the course of a term. One thing is for certain: going to every event, run by every club, every night of the week is not the answer to unhealthy academic expectations, nor is it the best way to make friends. Carving out space to actually be alone – some of that time working, some of it not working – seems to me the only real solution to these challenges, not ‘funning’ ourselves into oblivion.


Mountain View

Not a ‘Cambridge experience’?

This may all seem banal, but it needs to be said nonetheless, in this moment perhaps more than any other in our lives thus far. Never have we emerged from something like these past few years, nor have we ever attempted to forge our professional and academic identities in such uncharted waters. And while I’m fully aware of the potential unpopularity of arguing for doing less things right now, it feels vital to reiterate the value of self-restraint in such a buzzing atmosphere. I wager that being selective in what we participate in this term, and the remainder of the year, will be rewarding in ways we can’t quite anticipate yet. If we can work out how to be alone now, when we feel pulled in every direction by an academic world celebrating its reclaimed freedoms with such abandon, we may just forge intellectual and social confidence that will pay dividends for decades to come. We also might think more interesting thoughts these next few months, and, well, have more fun — on our own, or in each other’s company.