Personal Statement: Alone, not lonely

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Michelle Phillips/Daily
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 6:58pm

The other night, I took myself out to see “La La Land” at the Michigan Theater. After countless recommendations from friends, I knew I had to go. The only showing I could fit in my day was at 9:45 p.m. on a Monday night, so naturally it was hard to find a friend willing to tag alone. I didn't think twice because, frankly, I just really wanted to see it.

I absolutely love being around people, but sometimes I like to do things alone. It doesn’t bother me. When schedules conflict or when I’m the only one of my friends who wants to try a new restaurant, I won’t hesitate to take myself. Other times, I need a reprieve from the social exhaustion that comes with having Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Being in college is like having a giant sleepover with all of my closest friends, but instead of gossiping on air mattresses, we’re running around and writing papers while applying to jobs. It can be exhausting to have the same conversation 10 times a day, lamenting about my lack of sleep and abundance of reading assignments. My calendar is a quilt of colors, and, yes, sometimes I schedule time to sleep.

Doing things alone alleviates the stress of planning and interaction. My thoughts can sort themselves out without the pressure of keeping up conversations.

I wasn’t always this way. Freshman year, I felt weird doing anything alone on campus. It seemed like everyone was constantly hanging out with their new friends, and I felt pressure to always have someone by my side. It was exhausting, but it was the true college experience, right? It wasn’t until after I worked in New York City last summer that I realized being alone didn’t mean I was lonely.

Being from North Carolina, I was thrown into a place 600 miles from home where I didn’t know a soul. I was living with family in New Jersey and commuting two hours each way to work. My job ended at 4:30 p.m., and the last commuter bus didn’t leave until 9 p.m. — I wasn’t going to let those hours go to waste. Every morning I stuffed my camera and sneakers in a bag and left work with a new destination in mind.

I took myself out to dinner in Little Italy and asked for a seat facing the window, so I could watch the parade of tourists and businessmen as they ate gelato on the sidewalk. I strolled along the Brooklyn Bridge and called home just to say, “Hey, I'm standing on the Brooklyn Bridge right now!” I went to the famous Junior’s Cheesecake, sat at the counter and read all of the laminated newspaper articles hanging on the wall. I listened to my favorite podcast as I walked around the lake in Central Park.

One day, I was wandering around Chelsea Market and decided to stop for what would become the best taco I have ever eaten. The chef seemed to pick up on this as I stood at the counter savoring every bite. When I looked up with a smiling face covered in guacamole, he generously handed over another taco on the house.

Another sunny day after work, I bought a ticket and rode the elevator to the observation deck on the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center. The deck had glass windows from the floor to ceiling, and exhibits about the history of the city. While reading a display, I began talking to an employee who was standing nearby. I talked about my summer job and pointed to the roof of the building I worked in, far below where we were standing.

After some small talk, I learned we were both studying computer science. He originally studied in his home country of France, and was now working at the observation deck while taking night classes toward an American degree. After we parted ways, I thought about all of the people I pass in the dining hall or in the hallway that I never connect with because I’m too distracted by the people I’m already with. Being on my own prompted me to look for interaction outside of my comfort zone and talk to a stranger.

All too often I see friends miss out on going to new places or meeting new people because they are too afraid to be seen alone in public. When it’s just you and your thoughts, it’s hard to ignore the voice in your head pointing out that everyone around you is with friends or family.

Don’t get me wrong — there is value in shared experiences. But what if sitting alone in a cafe eating the same food as the strangers around you was considered a shared experience? Even when you’re sitting alone in a movie theater, you can hear everyone around you erupt into laughter at the punch line, right? Or what about two strangers appreciating the same painting in an art museum? Even a bunch of strangers standing 102 stories above the street below could be a shared experience.

I’m grateful for my summer in New York City because it taught me the difference between being lonely and being alone. Ann Arbor isn’t quite as big as the city, but I still love to take myself on walks to the Arb or Main Street. I understand the initial strangeness in sitting alone in the row of a movie theater all by yourself, surrounded by couples and groups of giggling girls. But I've promised myself that being alone will never hold me back from doing what I want.